An Assembly panel has approved legislation known as the "New Jersey Death with Dignity Act," which would allow voters to decide if New Jersey should create a process for terminally patients who wish to be provided medicinal assistance to end their lives.

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The measure is sponsored by Assemblymen John Burzichelli and Tim Eustace.

If approved by voters, the bill would require terminally patients with six months to live or less to first verbally request a prescription from their attending physician, followed by a second verbal request at least 15 days later, and one request in writing signed by two witnesses. The attending physician would have to offer the patient a chance to rescind their request. A consulting physician would then be called upon to certify the original diagnosis and reaffirm the patient is capable of making a decision.

"This discussion is about revisiting a statue last looked at in 1978 that never took into account an individual's right to control their body and their circumstances," says Burzichelli. "Medicine, palliative care and hospice services have changed dramatically since then. People faced with circumstances like a terminal illness, with less than six months to live, should have the right to control their circumstances and their fate in a way suited to them, their conscience and their faith. This is about freedom of choice and control of one's body."

The bill defines a "terminal disease" as an incurable and irreversible disease that has been medically confirmed and will, within reasonable medical judgment, result in a patient's death within six months. Under the measure the patient would have to self-administer the lethal dose of drugs.

New Jersey Right to Life executive director Marie Tasy opposes the measure because she says medicine can be wrong and terminally ill people don't always die within six months even if a doctor believes that would be the case. She also thinks the bill leaves room for abuse by friends and relatives who might have something to gain from the death. Tasy wonders if insurance companies might deny coverage for treatment but pay for assisted suicide because it would be better for their bottom line.

Tasy says, "What we need to concentrate on is improving end-of-life care. We shouldn't be looking to have people kill themselves….Compassionate care is not killing somebody. It's providing proper medical care that they need at the end of their lives."

"We understand that this is a very personal, passionate and, often, faith based issue for many people," explains Eustace. "This legislation goes to great lengths to ensure that no one with an impaired judgment or uncertainty would be eligible under this act. In the end, this is about allowing individuals the personal freedom to choose whether they want to live their final days with dignity rather than relentless pain."

If approved by both full houses of the legislature, the measure would be placed on the ballot for voters to decide upon at the next general election to be held at least 70 days following the date of the bill's enactment. If enacted, New Jersey would become the third state to address this issue through law.

"The inevitable truth is that there comes a time for terminally ill patients when medicine no longer heals and barely eases the pain, stripping away that person's freedom to decide how they would like to live their remaining days," says Burzichelli. "This legislation would not compel anyone to end their life because of illness or depression, nor will it force anyone to act against their religious beliefs. This would simply allow individuals the choice of whether or not to end their life peacefully or to suffer through pain and a diminished quality of life."