Assembly Approves Aid in Dying Bill

By Briana Vannozzi

“People fight for life every day. Why are people trying to fight for death?” asked cancer survivor Dennis Castellano.

Hoping to sway lawmakers, opponents of the Aid in Dying bill offered powerful stories of their own brushes with death. This is the fourth assisted suicide bill submitted in four years, giving terminally ill patients with six months to live the option to take a physician prescribed medication to end their life.

“What about what I taught my daughter? She saw me fighting for life. I was in the throws of death, my kidneys were shutting down, my liver was shutting down, my lungs were about to quit, but she saw me fight,” Castellano said.

“In the several years that I have cared for patients on hospice, I have never ever had a patient ask for suicide. I have never seen or heard of a patient who committed suicide and I ask you to take note of that statement,” said hospice nurse Patricia Staley.

Some doctors argue it opens the door for abuse and can put power in the wrong hands. Dr. Matthew Suh worries insurance companies will consider cost, not care, when deciding between a pill or expensive, lengthy treatments.

“As a doctor who has taken an oath to preserve life and yes, to alleviate suffering. But alleviating suffering is different from ending the person who is suffering. And that’s what we’re being asked to do. This is actually state sponsored, funded, suicide through Medicaid,” he said.

“I don’t think suicide in any way, shape or form needs to appear as though you’re empowered to take your own life,” said Sarah Steele.

The bill is modeled after similar legislation in Oregon. Patients will need two doctors to sign off before they can get a prescription. NYPD Detective Stephen McDonald was shot and paralyzed in the line of duty.

“Thirty years ago my wife might have been pressured to end my life while I was on life support and unconscious,” he said.

“I had a great relationship with my father. He was diagnosed and four months later was the end. It was very fast and I think seeing the progression of the illness, the end part when he was not my father anymore and was not able to really do anything for himself,” said Elissa Dunn of Compassion and Choices.

Proponents say it’s about having choice — one you can’t understand until you’ve watched someone you love wither away.

“Watching him die when he was miserable and cachectic and emaciated and he said three times on three different occasions that he wanted to die,” said Debra Dunn of Compassion & Choices.

“So we’ve observed people in last stages of life and we’ve controlled our treatment options thus far and we’d like to have some amount of control over our final days,” said Laurie Wilcox of Compassion and Choices.

In a late afternoon vote, the bill passed with exactly 41 votes. Sponsor Assemblyman John Burzichelli said, “After a great deal of consideration it’s just simply the right thing to do. I mean we have wonderful services now as I remind people. We have aid in dying for terminally ill, we have palliative care, we have comfort care, we have magnificent compassion of hospice, but the people of New Jersey have said they’d like to have an additional choice when they reach that time in life.”

Assemblyman Burzichelli expects the bill to move through the Senate quickly. Senate President Steve Sweeney has expressed interest. Though the governor’s signature is unlikely, proponents say it’s a process and they’re willing to wait.