Aid In Dying Bill Passes Committee, Heads to House Vote

New Jersey could become the sixth state to permit terminally ill patients to end their suffering with a lethal dose of prescription drugs. That’s if an “Aid in Dying” bill — the fourth assisted suicide bill submitted in four years — is passed. Its sponsor is Assemblyman John Burzichelli. He sat down with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams.

Williams: What exactly would this bill entail?

Burzichelli: The bill, Mary Alice, is structured after what has been in place in Oregon for now over 25 years. It would allow a person who is diagnosed as terminally ill, with six months or less to live — a diagnosis by the way that has to be confirmed by two physicians — at a given time ask their physician for aid in dying by requesting a prescription that they would then self administer if they decide to conclude their time and their suffering.

Williams: Why do you see it necessary for people in New Jersey to receive medical aid in dying?

Burzichelli: Well here’s what we’ve learned collectively through a lot of discussion up and down the state. Aid in dying for the terminally ill occurs in New Jersey every day through wonderful programs like palliative care, comfort care and hospice. But there are a number of New Jerseyans that think that they would like to have an additional choice should the pain management that their circumstance deteriorate to the point that the wonderful compassionate care of hospice is not enough. This would provide them that choice. Polls in New Jersey say that the majority of New Jerseyans like the idea of having the choice, having that control. But by the way that same majority doesn’t say they would necessarily have that to be their decision or their choice at the end but they would like that comfort of knowing they’d be in control of their circumstances.

Williams: Are there safeguards built in to ensure that someone doesn’t make a hasty decision when they’re in pain?

Burzichelli: There are. And in fact some have criticized this version as being a little too strict, like for example the individual who is diagnosed with a terminal illness, as I mentioned, has to have a second diagnosis to confirm the illness. They have to be of sound mind. If the physician who’s helping them through this determines that they’re clinically depressed or if their capabilities to make a decision are unclear, they would be required to have a psychological review to make sure they’re in clear mind to do this. There’s a waiting period of 15 days, then you have to make another request in writing with a witness not associated with your estate or business affairs and then at that point you would receive the prescription. Then it’s up to you to fill the prescription and then in the end it’s up to you to take the prescription. It’s not something that’s administered by someone else.

Williams: But it’s also up to the doctor to write the prescription. The New Jersey Medical Society says your bill is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as a healer. Does this extend the role of the physician too far?

Burzichelli: No, we’re working with the medical association because all their members do not simply have that position. The medical associations in California, in Oregon, in Vermont they’ve all worked through this. And by the way this is all voluntary on the part of the professionals, including the hospitals. I don’t expect that, for example, a Catholic hospital would participate in such a program as they don’t participate in abortions. So if you’re going to look for this kind of service, you’re going to be with a doctor in a facility that wants to do this because it’s all voluntary and no one is forced to do this and no one is forced to take it, no one is forced to participate in giving it.

Williams: How is this different than traditional hospice?

Burzichelli: Well, I understand that frankly as an extension. Hospice is a wonderful program that’s evolved over time a great deal of pain medication. There’s formats to help make things as comfortable as they can possibly be. In Oregon, for example, the 132 people in 2015 that took advantage of taking, and actually ingesting, their prescription, 92 percent of then were on hospice. So this clearly becomes an extension of what hospice does. It just allows the individual that is struck with the illness and end-of-life circumstances to make the decision for themselves and take a prescription and their time.

Williams: This is your fourth try with this bill. Why do you think it will pass this time and why will Christie sign it when he’s vowed not to?

Burzichelli: Well I can’t speak for the governor. Last time around he said he was not favorable to it. This is the kind of topic that warrants public discussion. This will make its way to the governor since last time it cleared the Assembly. It can get through the Senate. I think the votes are there in both houses to do this. The governor may or may not choose to sign it, and then at that point it will be left to another cycle. But again this warrants a good public discussion and I have to tell you that the conversation on both sides of the issue, I think has been very respectful because as I said to people, my role here is not to convince anyone of anything. My role here is to help understand where the law should be and if there are New Jersey residents of sound mind and of consenting age, because you have to be an adult, that would like to have this choice. The question is should the law allow the choice to be available to them and that’s the debate we’re having now.