After a brief delay from a court challenge, a New Jersey law allowing doctors to help terminal patients shorten their lives under certain conditions has taken effect. The state is now among eight providing such an option.
Supporters of the Medical Aid in Dying law say it is inaccurate to call what it makes possible “assisted suicide.” That seems fair. Its help is restricted to those in a dying process that is expected to last less than six months.
It can help people die sooner and with less suffering, rather than help end an ongoing life. If a particular religion still considers this to be an improper taking of one’s life, then its followers are free not to use its provisions.
The law’s start was held up a few weeks, until last Tuesday, by a court challenge filed by a Bergen County doctor. That alluded to religious grounds, professional ethics and the ongoing creation of policies and practices for carrying out the law. After a Superior Court judge stayed its implementation, an Appellate Court lifted the stay, saying the doctor’s standing to sue was limited and the Legislature’s intent was clear and detailed. With similar laws established in other states, the chance of a successful challenge seems remote.
We supported this law back when it had no chance of being signed by then-Gov. Chris Christie, calling its safeguards “thoughtful and well-crafted.” Too extensive to review here, they include requirements of age (18); capability of making and communicating health care decisions; multiple confirmed, witnessed and retractable requests for the means of shortening one’s life; and validation by two doctors.
New Jersey government and its people should realize, however, that any authorization of ending a life in any way commits them to the oversight needed to ensure it isn’t abused or extended into morally and ethically unacceptable areas.
For starters, that means reviewing Medical Aid in Dying cases regularly to make sure the law’s practices, policies and safeguards are performing as planned.
It also means state officials and citizens should be aware of how the state-authorized ending of lives can and has descended down that slippery slope to practices few would defend.
Belgium and the Netherlands, for example, legalized euthanasia years ago for terminally ill people. Then Belgium 16 years ago extended aid in dying to people with psychiatric ailments that wouldn’t kill them, resulting in several dozen such doctor-assisted suicides a year. Last year, three doctors were criminally charged in the death of a 38-year-old woman diagnosed with incurable autism, which her family insisted was actually depression over a recent breakup with her boyfriend.
Hundreds of Belgian doctors and academics have sought tighter controls after a woman with dementia who hadn’t requested euthanasia was put to death at her family’s request in 2017.
In 2014, Belgium updated its law to allow a doctor to terminate the life of a child of any age who makes a request according to the law. This makes the ridiculous assumption that children can fully understand the consequences of their decision and the treatment options that might alleviate their condition. Lives as young as 9 and 11 years have been so ended. The Netherlands requires a minimum age of just 12.
New Jersey deserves credit for allowing adults under carefully controlled circumstances to choose to limit the suffering at the end of their lives.
It will deserve something else if it allows its embrace and acceptance of that state-sanctioned life-taking to extend over time into areas Americans would find appalling.