State Assembly Health Committee members approved the New Jersey Death with Dignity Act last week, which would allow terminally ill patients with six months or less to live to legally end their lives with the help of a doctor’s prescription under certain conditions. Polls have shown the majority of New Jerseyans support such a measure. Bill sponsor Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-3) told NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider that there are many steps before a person can actually take his or her life and also that the rights of religious organizations are taken into consideration.
As it stands now, the Death with Dignity Act would become a ballot question for voters to decide. Burzichelli said the reason for that is because his staff structured the bill after what transpired in Oregon and Washington State, where similar laws have been in place for years.
“It just made sense to just pick it up as it was, fine tune it to New Jersey’s statute language and to let it stand from start to finish as other states had approached it,” Burzichelli said. “But now as we get into it, I think we’ll have additional discussions about whether a referendum is the way to go.”
According to Burzichelli, the Death with Dignity Act would only apply to individuals who have been formally diagnosed with a terminal illness with six months or less left to live. The diagnosis would also need to be confirmed by a second physician. Patients who wish to participate would tell their doctor. If the doctor is willing to participate, he or she would bring the patient a certificate to sign indicating his or her wishes. The signing would need to be witnessed by an independent third party and the decision could not be coercion from family members. There is a 15-day waiting period and then if it is determined that the patient is of sound mind and able to make decisions on his or her own behalf, then 48 hours later, a prescription can be filled. The patient must self administer the drugs to end his or her own life.
“Many people … get the prescription and don’t use it for one reason or another — either because they choose not to or because their situation improves or they just like the idea of having control of their circumstances. It’s a very personal decision,” Burzichelli said. “It really comes down to the individual — their mind, their conscience and what they think is best for them. And all statistics indicate that those who would choose to take this route are really very a small minority.”
Burzichelli’s sister-in-law, Claudia Burzichelli, testified in front of the Assembly Health Committee about her experiences. Her father committed suicide with a firearm and Burzichelli explained that had the Death with Dignity Act option been available, he likely would have chosen that route instead.
“Then the family would have been able to say goodbye and it would’ve been on his terms,” he explained. “The scars of having to find him as they did would not remain as they do to this day. So that’s another dimension to this discussion.”
There has been strong resistance to measures that allow people to end their lives from the Catholic Church and other religious denominations. Burzichelli said their participation in the process is welcome and their position is respected.
“The bill does not require a doctor to participate nor does it require a hospital to offer this service if they choose not to. It removes any potential civil liability if someone refuses to engage in this conversation with their patient,” Burzichelli explained. “This law is not mandatory in any way other than the steps that it does prescribe if the person’s going to engage this option. So for those who have strong religious convictions, those religious convictions will not be intruded upon.”
Burzichelli said the purpose of the Death with Dignity Act is to help terminally ill patients. “It’s about the person lying in the bed and not the person standing next to the bed,” he said. “So many people find comfort in the thought that they can control their circumstances to the very end.”