New Jersey doctors will soon have the ability to help terminally ill patients end their own lives.

Gov. Phil Murphy says he will sign a bill passed by both houses of the legislature allowing physicians to prescribe a drug concoction a patient can take at home with the intent of a peaceful death.

There are passionate feelings on both sides of the issue. Supporters call it “death with dignity.” Opponents worry some patients would be denied life-saving experimental treatments. Many doctors are also opposed, feeling assisted suicide violates their Hippocratic oath to do no harm. More on the debate can be found here, but here is what happens (and what could go wrong) when a person decides to ask his or her doctor to help them end their life in New Jersey.

Are physician assisted suicide and euthanasia the same thing?

No. The two terms are often mistakenly used interchangeably. Euthanasia involves a doctor directly administering a fatal combination of drugs, often intravenously, and monitoring the patient through the end of life. In a physician-assisted suicide, the doctor provides a prescription for a lethal combination of drugs the patient will self administer.

Multiple requests needed:

Under the New Jersey statues, a patient would first have to have a terminal diagnosis with a doctor certifying the patient has less than six months to live. The patient would have to be an adult deemed of sound mind. The first request of the doctor would be verbal. A second would need to be made at least 15 days later. Then a request in writing, signed by two witnesses. The doctor would then write the prescription for the drugs that would end life.

Can I change my mind?

Absolutely. The law makes the option and the drugs available to terminally ill patients, but a patient may change his or her mind at any time.

What drugs are used?

That remains unclear, but they are likely to be a combination of barbiturates. The same drugs that can be used in small doses to treat everything from insomnia to seizures are fatal in larger doses. They cause the brain and nervous system to slow down to the point the brain no longer sends signals to keep your heart and lungs working. Barbiturates are the preferred drugs for assisted suicide in Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands and in some U.S. states where assisted suicide is legal. There will be guidance available to doctors in New Jersey, but your doctor will ultimately have the final say on what drugs are prescribed to you.

If I choose this option, will my doctor be with me?

Probably not. Doctors are prohibited from actually administering the drugs. The New Jersey law would require the patient to administer them themselves. It does not expressly forbid the doctor from being present, but the doctor cannot assist your suicide beyond giving you a prescription. In other countries, physicians are allowed to administer the actual drugs, to ensure there are no complications.

Am I guaranteed a peaceful death?

Not necessarily. There are few studies on the matter, but in 2000 an article in the New England Journal of Medicine wrote “The characteristics and frequency of clinical problems with the performance of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are uncertain.” The authors studied both euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide in the Netherlands. They did find greater than 18 percent of assisted suicides had complications severe enough that a doctor had to step in and complete the dying process. The report says 7 percent of patients did not die peacefully, and suffered complications that included extreme gasping for air, vomiting, muscle spasms and failure to remain unconscious.

How has it worked in other states? 

There have been few studies or reports issued, and most looked at demographics but not complications. California, Oregon, and Washington State have issued reports in 2016 after adopting their own physician-assisted suicide laws.

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