The New Jersey Death with Dignity Act would allow terminally ill patients with six months left to live the opportunity to get a prescription of medication to end their life. The Assembly Health Committee approved the measure last month, but not before hearing opposition from Dr. Ana Gomes, a general practitioner at Kaleidoscope Medical Associates. Gomes told NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider that the bill fails on many levels and physicians should focus on easing suffering rather than ending lives.
Gomes said she didn’t have much of an opportunity to speak during the Assembly Health Committee hearing, but said she wanted to convey to lawmakers that the bill doesn’t address the issue of pain and suffering or the potential for elder abuse. She also takes issue with the way the death certificates for the patients are expected to read.
“They’re asking the physicians to sign with their diagnosis such as diabetes and hypertension and not that they were overdosed with a medication called Seconal on the death certificate,” Gomes said. “So basically they’re asking us to commit some level of fraud as physicians which is really contrary to our oath.”
Supporters of the measure have said terminally ill patients who are suffering with no hope of a cure should have the option to end their lives. But Gomes said physicians should help patients alleviate their suffering but not prescribe the suicide.
“I don’t really think there’s any dignity in suicide in itself, but I think the dignified way is really to take care of your patients, be their advocate, help them with their suffering. And we have palliative care in … Jersey. Many institutions are available and do a wonderful job,” Gomes said. “And I think that’s really where we need to have our focus, is with the palliative care system that we have, such as compassionate care, life choices.”
Some have said hospices medicate patients to the point that they are heavily sedated prior to death and it is essentially the same result as what the Death with Dignity Act would do. But Gomes disagrees.
“You have to understand what the intent is. Is the intent to exterminate a life or is it the intent to alleviate suffering? Of course when you give a medication, there are some side effects that come with it which the patient obviously has an understanding and the family as well so I think it comes down to the intent. What is the purpose of this bill?” she asked. “It is to end a life. It’s really to assist in suicide.”
Backers of the bill, like Assemblyman John Burzichelli, say that no one would be forced to either take the medication or prescribe it. But Gomes said there is little oversight, including who picks up the prescription and from where. She said she worries about abuse by family members and possible ingestion by accident.
“Anyone can pick up that prescription. Who’s going to be monitoring that medication? It can get in the wrong hands. Children at home,” she said. “It’s not a pink, wonderful pill. It’s 100 pills that you have to swallow very quickly in order for them to be effective.”
Gomes doesn’t believe many physicians or patients in New Jersey will want to participate should the Death with Dignity Act become law. “In New Jersey I haven’t had any experience where I’ve actually had any patients that were interested. I think they’re more interested in helping their loved ones with alleviation of their pain and suffering and not necessarily a manner to extinct them,” she said, adding that she doesn’t know of any physicians that are interested in participating.