What does ‘Aid in Dying’ mean for the state’s doctors and patients?

BY Leah Mishkin, Correspondent |

Susan Boyce has a terminal autoimmune disease. The mother of five says she’s still enjoying her life, but when she gets to the very end, after all options have been explored, she wants to have one more way to end the suffering.

For years, she’s been fighting to get New Jersey to pass an “Aid in Dying” bill. The legislation would allow patients who have six months or less to live the option of taking medication to end their own lives.

“When I was first diagnosed, I was told I had five years. And this is 13 years now, I’ve been living with this, so I didn’t at the five year mark say ‘oh time’s up,'” Boyce said. “This is really designed for people who are really at the end, and the last few weeks of existing are extraordinarily painful and difficult.”

Dr. Deborah Pasik, a Cedar Knolls rheumatologist, says that humane solution is medical aid in dying.

“It’s just another option in a continuum of what patients can chose to have access to,” Pasik said.

The president of the Medical Society of New Jersey, Dr. John Poole, says the group originally opposed the bill because it goes against the fundamental role of a physician as a healer. He says there was also a concern it could be a slippery slope.

“What the real concern is, is could it be patients that are in vulnerable populations, patients without resources and stuff, are they going to feel pressured?” said Poole.

Some of the other safeguards in the legislation: two physicians must sign off that a patient is terminally ill, the patient must be able to take the medication themselves and if a physician does not believe a patient is of sound mind, then before a prescription can be written, a mental health assessment must be ordered.

“No one is obligated to participate — physician or patient,” Pasik said.

Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso wants the bill vetoed altogether because she says other forms of care are already available to help terminally ill patients.

“Hospice, palliative care, that’s what it’s for — to make you have the most comfortable last few months of your life,” DiMaso said.

“A lot of times it does relief suffering to the satisfaction of the patient, but sometimes it doesn’t, and that’s where a person can exercise his or her options ,” Pasik said.

DiMaso said she understands Gov. Phil Murphy is likely to sign the bill, but she sent him a letter with Assemblyman Christopher DePhillips urging him to at least conditionally veto it until more safeguards are put in place.

“A psychological examination is required for all patients prior to them being allowed to decide to end their life. A third would be that a doctor actually administer the dosage,” DiMaso said.

Two of these points are already addressed in the bill, and Pasik says a physician can’t administer the medication.

“The terminally ill, mentally-competent patient is the only individual that can administer this medication,” Pasik said.

The bill will go into effect four months after the governor signs it into law. New Jersey would join seven other states and Washington D.C. with a form of “Aid in Dying” legislation.