Measure Would Create Process To Allow Terminal Patients To Choose End Of Life Option

TRENTON, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — New Jersey’s Assembly approved a bill Thursday that would allow physicians to prescribe life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients.

The 41-31 vote came after the measure was pulled from consideration in June.

The bill establishes a procedure for patients to request to end their lives. A second doctor would have to certify the original terminal diagnosis and confirm the patient is capable of making the decision to die without pressure from others.

In addition, 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.

A patient must have a prognosis of six months or less to live to request and be prescribed medication under the bill.

“This discussion is about revisiting a statute last looked at in 1978 that never took into account an individual’s right to control their body and their circumstances,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli, one of the bill’s co-sponsors. “Like society, medicine, palliative care and hospice services have changed dramatically since then.  While there are many choices available right now that may be right for certain people, there is one more choice, not currently available, that deserves an honest discussion.

“One thing is clear by all the polling and public testimony taken: that in New Jersey, a majority of people would like to have another option along with balance of care and hospice,” Burzichelli told WCBS 880’s Sean Adams. “It doesn’t mean that they would necessarily choose it.”

As CBS2’s Hazel Sanchez reported, Janet Colbert, who is suffering from a rare and incurable form of liver cancer, was at the state capitol to show her support for the bill.

“I would like to know that I had a choice if it goes a way that I’m not comfortable with, or the pain in unmanageable,” she said.

But opponents have said life expectancy estimates are often wrong, and the bill is a recipe for elder abuse.

“If the patient has the prescription and does not want to take it, we have no way of knowing whether that person is being forced to take it,” said Marie Tasy, executive director of the group New Jersey Right to Life.

“I felt all the legislators who voted for the bill today were very irresponsible,” Tasy added. “The bill is riddled with loopholes. There is so much room for abuse of the disabled and the elderly.”

Added Dr. Ana Denisita Gomes, a general practitioner: “This bill completely eradicates what the role of a physician is. We’re a healer. We’re not killer.”

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.

Specifically, the legislation would provide that a patient may make a written request for self-administered medication in order to end his or her life in a humane and dignified manner if the patient:

  • Is an adult resident of New Jersey.
  • Is capable and has been determined by the patient’s attending physician and consulting physician to be suffering from a terminal disease.
  • Has voluntarily expressed a wish to die.

The bill additionally would require that the patient’s attending physician, at the time the patient makes an initial oral request for medication under the bill, recommend that the patient participate in a consultation concerning additional treatment opportunities, palliative care, comfort care, hospice care and pain control options, and provide the patient with a referral to a health care professional qualified to discuss these options.

The vote came week after physician-assisted suicide advocate Brittany Maynard ended her life under an Oregon law allowing terminally ill people to choose when to die.

Maynard, 29, defended her decision last month to CBS News’ Jan Crawford.

“Cancer is ending my life,” she said. “I am choosing to end it a little sooner and in a lot less pain and suffering.”

“Statistics from other states that have enacted laws to provide compassionate aid in dying for terminally ill patients indicate that the great majority of patients who requested medication under the laws of those states, including more than 90 percent of patients in Oregon since 1998 and between 72 and 86 percent of patients in Washington in each year since 2009, were enrolled in hospice care at the time of death,” Burzichelli said. “This suggests that those patients had availed themselves of available treatment and comfort care options available to them at the time they requested compassionate aid in dying.”

The bill now awaits further action by the Senate.

Gov. Chris Christie has said he opposes the measure.

Burzichelli said he is not discouraged by Christie’s opposition to date.

“The bill doesn’t leave here today and go to his desk,” the assemblyman said. “And things change over time. So I would hope, as it continues to make its way through, a better understanding is hand by all.”

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