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NJ LAWMAKERS PUSH FOR ASSISTED SUICIDE BILL
Record - 3/14/2018
Melissa Wilcox, as she describes herself, is a woman with "a big love for life." The 57-year-old retired nurse from Hamilton Township has outlived a terminal lung cancer diagnosis by more than three years. She now spends her time training her Havanese dog to visit hospital patients and is looking forward to the birth of her second grandchild by the end of the month.
"Every day I have something, even though I'm in severe pain, that I push myself to do," she said. "It's a blessing every day."
But when her time to die comes, she told lawmakers Monday, she wants to do it on her terms. Sitting next to her sister Laurie Wilcox, who has battled non-Hodgkin lymphoma and has life-threatening rheumatoid arthritis, Melissa asked lawmakers to pass an assisted suicide bill that would allow some terminally ill patients to seek a prescription for a lethal dose of drugs that they could then administer to themselves.
"I don't want to have to take that drive to the hospital and walk down the halls knowing that I'm never going to go back again," she said. "I want to die at home and I want to die peacefully."
Lawmakers on the Assembly Judiciary Committee did advance that controversial bill Monday, reopening an emotional debate in New Jersey with its roots in the famous court case of Karen Ann Quinlan in the 1970s. The 5-2 vote followed more than three hours of testimony that alternated between fierce criticism and impassioned statements of support.
The so-called "Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act," A-1504, was first introduced in 2012 and since then has twice been passed by the Assembly only to stall in the Senate. Former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, was opposed, but advocates hope Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, will be more receptive.
Assemblyman John Burzichelli, a Gloucester County Democrat and bill sponsor, said Monday that he had "great confidence" the bill would reach the governor's desk this legislative session. Murphy, for his part, has not weighed in on the issue and declined to comment Monday.
Legal suicide opposition
The New Jersey measure, patterned after a law passed in Oregon in 1997, would allow a terminally ill, mentally competent, adult resident of New Jersey to request and use a prescription for lethal medication. Six states and the District of Columbia already have such laws.
Two physicians would be required to attest that the person had less than six months to live. The request would have to be made in writing and witnessed by two people -- including one who was not a family member, a beneficiary of the patient's will or the attending physician. Two other requests would have to be made orally. The person who requested it would have to be capable of taking the medicine himself or herself.
Standing in opposition to the measure, as it has done in the past, was the Medical Society of New Jersey. Mishael Azam, chief operating officer of the physician lobbying group, said in written testimony that the bill is "fundamentally incompatible with the physician's role as healer" and raised concerns about its design.
"There is no requirement for a witness to the death. How can we ensure that the patient is in a safe environment and that the medications are taken and work properly?" she wrote. "On the other hand, if the patient is not alone, how do we know he is not coerced to take the medication, or even given the medication without consent? A terminally ill patient should not be exposed to such a risk."
Her concerns were echoed by T. Brian Callister, a physician from Nevada, who said the bill could expose vulnerable individuals to undue pressure by insurance companies and family members.
"Between insurance companies having the cheapest way out by a couple of pills rather than a life-saving procedure, and the potential perverse incentives, unintended consequences from family members trying to push granny down the road, that is real and we've seen it," Callister said.
Daniel Sulmasy, a professor of biomedical ethics at Georgetown University, meanwhile, warned that "assisted suicide is just the beginning."
"Once physician-assisted suicide is legalized, logic and law will lead you to euthanasia," he said. "It will be declared discriminatory to prevent patients who are paralyzed or demented from equal access, and that requires euthanasia."
'It's their dignity'
Burzichelli, however, made it clear in brief remarks to the Assembly panel that a disability does not count as a terminal illness under the bill and argued that "whatever decision a person makes at the time their life is concluding is their choice and it's their dignity."
He said that in Oregon last year, 218 prescriptions for lethal drugs were requested by terminally ill patients, of whom 130 ingested them. In Washington, which has a similar law, 248 prescriptions were requested and 192 were ingested in 2016, he said.
"For anyone to suggest that if this bill were enacted there would be this great sea change about people choosing to conclude their lives -- it just simply doesn't seem to be the case," he said.
New Jersey residents, for their part, have previously been receptive to such a measure. According to a 2015 Rutgers-Eagleton poll, 63 percent of residents supported an aid-in-dying bill to "allow terminally ill patients to obtain a prescription to end their lives," while 29 percent were opposed.
New Jersey has been grappling with questions surrounding the right to die since the case of Karen Ann Quinlan, a 21-year-old who fell into an irreversible coma in 1975 after taking tranquilizers and drinking alcohol at a party. A year later, she became a symbol of a patient's right to "die with dignity" when her parents won a landmark New Jersey Supreme Court decision allowing them to remove her from a respirator.
The ruling gave patients and their guardians the right to end "artificial life supports" when the prognosis for recovery was hopeless. But Burzichelli said Monday that without enabling legislation, it would still be considered a crime in New Jersey for doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to patients.
Susan Boyce, a 54-year-old Rumson resident with a progressive terminal genetic disease called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, told lawmakers Monday that she, too, wanted the option of "medical aid in dying as a last resort."
"I know it will give me peace of mind simply having the medication, even if I never use it," she said. "It will make it easier for me to fully live out the time I have left."