Patients Call for Advance of NJ’s Death With Dignity Act [AUDIO]
This past February, a state Assembly panel 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 ill patients who wish to be given medicinal help to end their lives.
That measure has been stalled ever since, and many of those patients are now calling on lawmakers to move the legislation.
The bill defines a "terminal disease" as an incurable, irreversible, medically confirmed diagnosis that will, within reasonable 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.
If approved, the bill would require those patients 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.
"We're all born with an expiration date," said Janet Colbert, a Lakewood resident with a rare form of liver cancer who has been told she has three to six months to live.
"None of us are getting out of here alive, so I just feel like that I should have a choice," Colbert said. "I don't want to be the victim of the medical community and my needs not being met at the end. I don't want to linger unnecessarily."
The discussion stems from a statute, last looked at in 1978, that never took into account a person's right to control their body and their circumstances, according to one of the bill's sponsors.
Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-West Deptford) said medicine, palliative care and hospice services have changed dramatically since then, and people faced with circumstances like a terminal illness should have the right to control their circumstances and their fate in a way suited to them, their conscience and their faith.
"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," said 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."
"It's not something that somebody can just decide, 'Okay, well we've had enough of her and there's money out there so we'll just pop Mom the pills and that's it, she's gone,'" said Colbert. "This is my final stance in life. This is the last thing I'm going to do, so hey, I should have some say in how it goes."
New Jersey Right to Life executive director Marie Tasy opposes the measure. After it was approved by the Assembly panel earlier this year, she said medicine can be wrong -- and terminally ill people don't always die within six months, even if a doctor believes that will be the case.
Tasy feels the bill leaves room for abuse by friends and relatives who might have something to gain from the death. She wonders if insurance companies might deny coverage for treatment but pay for assisted suicide, because it would be better for their bottom line.
"What we need to concentrate on is improving end-of-life care," said Tasy. "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."
If approved by both houses in Trenton and passed by voters, the measure would make New Jersey the third state to address this issue through legislation.