TRENTON — A bill that would allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication for terminally ill patients wishing to take their own lives cleared an Assembly committee Thursday.
The Health and Senior Services Committee voted 7-2 for the measure. If approved by the Legislature, the measure would be put to a popular vote.
Bill sponsor Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, said it was time to revisit an outdated state statute and give people who are told they have six months to live the choice of how to end their lives.
“When you say suicide, I sense with confidence the average person thinks of a death related to something tragic,” Burzichelli told the panel. “For the person facing a terminal condition firmly in control of the circumstances, the ... conclusion every time is not a tragedy.”
The proposed Death with Dignity Act would allow doctors to prescribe terminally ill patients lethal doses of medication that the person could take on their own. The bill is modeled after legislation in Washington and Oregon.
Burzichelli’s sister-in-law, Claudia Burzichelli, testified in favor of the measure. She said she has had several family members suffer through terminal illnesses who would have benefited from having the choice to end their lives humanely. She told the story of her father, who after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and other serious illnesses took his own life.
Sheila McLaughlin, of Ventnor, said that despite her aunt having a living will saying she did not want medical intervention to save her life, doctors insisted the 94-year-old undergo surgery to reduce her chronic pain. She later broke a hip and died “alone in a hospital bed pleading to be able to see her mother and father again,” McLaughlin said.
“I wish she had been able to die with the same dignity that she lived,” McLaughlin testified.
But not everyone favored the bill. Nearly a dozen opponents testified that the measure is unethical and goes against the doctor’s duty to help the dying. Many gave examples of people who received a diagnosis that they would die within six months but ended up living for years.
“By no means does terminal mean terminal,” said Ana Gomes, a doctor from Phillipsburg, Warren County, who said she’s seen many cases of people who are incorrectly diagnosed. “We still get it wrong.”
Joseph Fennelly, a doctor who chairs the bioethics committee of the Medical Society of New Jersey, said the bill fails to define what is considered terminally ill. He also had issues with patients not being required to notify their families of their decision to die.