New Jersey Assembly Advances Death With Dignity Legislation

By Nicholas Little
Legal Director, Center for Inquiry

On Thursday, November 13, the New Jersey State Assembly, the lower legislative house, voted 41-31 to pass a bill permitting physician-assisted suicide in the Garden State. The bill was originally intended to be voted on in June of this year, but that vote had been dropped, and the bill finally came to the floor in the recent aftermath of cancer sufferer Brittany Maynard making use of Oregon’s humanitarian law permitting death with dignity in that state.

The New Jersey law closely follows those already in place in Montana, Oregon, Washington and Vermont. It requires a diagnosis from two separate doctors that a patient is suffering from a terminal disease, which will cause death within the next six months. In order to take advantage of the law, a patient must be a New Jersey resident, over the age of 18, and possess the capacity to make health care decisions. The bill includes multiple safeguards, including a requirement that the patient is referred for counselling if depressed or suffering from a psychological or psychiatric disorder, that the patient’s next of kin be notified (unless the patient declines said notification), and that no medical personal be required to participate in the process.

For patients who meet the requirements, and make the informed decision to request, the law permits them to be provided with medication which they can self-administer in order to end their lives. The medication must be requested both orally and in writing, and, at least 15 days after the initial oral request, the patient must make a second oral request. At that point, the physician is required to offer the patient the opportunity to rescind the request. After this, and at least two days after the signed written request, the physician may prescribe the medication.

The passage of this bill is a major step forward for the rights of terminally ill patients in New Jersey. However, its future passage is far from clear. While the New Jersey Senate has a Democratic majority of 24 out of 40 seats, it is not clear whether the bill would gain approval there. New Jersey has a plurality (40%) of Roman Catholics, a church whose leadership is inextricably opposed to assisted suicide legislation. Lay opinion amongst Catholics, as on other issues, varies, with significant support for the rights of terminally ill patients to control their passing. Even if the bill were to pass both chambers, it seems likely that Republican Governor Chris Christie would veto it. Governor Christie has stated repeatedly that he is pro-life, and has vetoed funding for Planned Parenthood in New Jersey multiple times. Current reports from the pro-life movement indicate he has pledged to them he will veto this bill. Such a veto seems particularly likely if Governor Christie is planning to seek the Republican nomination for the Presidency for the 2016 election. To override such a veto, the bill must receive the votes of two thirds of the members, requiring thirteen further Assembly members to grant their support.