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New Jersey Assembly OKs assisted suicide, bill goes to state Senate


Catholic News Service

TRENTON, N.J. — The New Jersey State Assembly has passed a bill that would allow terminally ill patients to self-administer medications to end their lives.

In a vote of 41-28, with five abstentions, New Jersey lawmakers Oct. 20 passed the measure known as the “Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act.” The bill now goes to the state Senate.

Sarah Steele speaks during a news conference Oct. 20 in the New Jersey State House Annex in Trenton about her battle with terminal brain cancer and the fact that she is alive 10 years after she was only given months to live. Steele was among a nearly dozen people to speak at the news conference against assisted-suicide legislation that is pending in Trenton. (CNS photo/Joe Moore, Catholic Monitor)

Sarah Steele speaks during a news conference Oct. 20 in the New Jersey State House Annex in Trenton about her battle with terminal brain cancer and the fact that she is alive 10 years after she was only given months to live. Steele was among a nearly dozen people to speak at the news conference against assisted-suicide legislation that is pending in Trenton. (CNS photo/Joe Moore, Catholic Monitor)

The bill would require patients suffering from a terminal disease to first verbally request a prescription from their attending physician, followed by a second verbal request at least 15 days later and one request in writing signed by two witnesses. In addition, the attending physician would have to offer the patient a chance to rescind their request. A consulting physician would then be called upon to certify the original diagnosis and reaffirm that the patient is capable of making a decision.

A patient must have a prognosis of six months or less to live to request and be prescribed medication under the bill.

A similar measure is currently pending in the D.C. Council, and Colorado voters will decide if assisted suicide should be allowed in their state Nov. 8. The ballot measure is called Proposition 106.

“It is our hope that the voters of Colorado recognize the flawed logic of those supporting this effort,” said a statement by the Colorado Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops.

“It is illogical for the state to promote and/or facilitate suicide for one group of persons, calling the suicides of those with a terminal illness and a specific prognosis ‘dignified and humane,’ while recognizing suicide as a serious statewide public health concern in all other circumstances, and spending enormous resources to combat it,” it said.

The conference recommended that voters urge elected officials “to improve access to palliative care and hospice care for those in the final stages of terminal illness.”

Currently, assisted suicide is legal in five states: Vermont, Montana, Oregon, Washington and California. The state of California also just issued a regulation that will allow people with mental illness who have been hospitalized to request physician-assisted suicide.

In New Jersey, supporters of the bill argue assisted suicide gives the terminally ill a “death with dignity.” Opponents, including the New Jersey Catholic bishops, say assisted suicide laws give insurance companies leeway to deny health care services.

Patrick Brannigan, executive director for the New Jersey Catholic Conference, said the sponsors may have introduced the bill out of compassion for people who are approaching death, adding, however, “that was unfortunate, because the finest expression of compassion is loving care that reduces or eliminates physical pain, psychological distress, depression and hopelessness, not providing someone with lethal drugs to end their life.”

Throughout the debate, many supporters of the bill have claimed that opposition to assisted suicide is based almost entirely on religious beliefs. Brannigan said that nothing could be further from the truth.

“Without question, the Catholic bishops of New Jersey and leaders of other faith-based groups, spurred by their religious belief in the sanctity of human life, have voiced strong objection” to the legislation, he said. “But many groups, including those who don’t embrace any particular faith’s doctrine, have been just as active or more active in opposing the unforeseen consequences of assisted suicide.”

For example, many oppose physician-assisted suicide because it is a direct threat to anyone viewed as a significant cost liability to a health care provider. That’s a position supported by Dr. Matthew Suh, who before the vote, had been part of an Advocacy Day in the State House Annex for those against the legislation to make their voices heard. During the event, physicians and those with terminal illnesses and disabilities spoke during a news conference organized by right-to-life and religious advocacy groups.

Suh cited cases in which those in states with assisted suicide laws were denied access to health care unless it was for life-ending measures. “The public isn’t hearing about people who are having their care denied,” said Suh, a surgeon and oncologist.

In a public statement, Assembly Democrat John Burzichelli, the bill’s main sponsor, said, “This discussion is about revisiting a statute last looked at in 1978 that never took into account an individual’s right to control their body and their circumstances.”

“Like society, medicine, palliative care and hospice services have changed dramatically since then. While there are many choices available right now that may be right for certain people, there is one more choice, not currently available, that deserves an honest discussion,” he said.

Suh said proponents he has spoken to admit that pain isn’t the underlying issue when it comes to the legislation, but rather the idea of death and dying in comfort.

The bill is “trying to address fear, and no amount of legislation is going to take away that fear,” he said.

Specifically, the bill defines a terminal illness as incurable and irreversible disease that will result in a patient’s death within six months. It provides that a patient may make a written request for self-administered medication to end his/her life in a humane and dignified manner if the patient: is an adult resident of New Jersey; is capable and has been determined by the patient’s attending physician and consulting physician to be suffering from a terminal disease, and has voluntarily expressed a wish to die.

A valid request for medication under this act must be signed and dated by the patient and witnessed by at least two individuals who, in the patient’s presence, attest that to the best of their knowledge and belief, the patient is capable and is acting voluntarily to sign the request. Only these patients would be permitted to administer the drug themselves.

Patricia Staley, a hospice nurse from Mercer County who spoke during Advocacy Day, said none of the thousands of patients she’s cared for has ever expressed an interest in suicide.

“It is not being requested by the patients, their family or their caregivers,” she said. “What is requested is pain relief, physical support, spiritual guidance and healing of family relationships.”


Mauro is associate editor of The Monitor, newspaper of the Diocese of Trenton.

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‘Dangerous’ Maryland physician-assisted suicide bill withdrawn from committee


Catholic News Service

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — A measure that would have legalized physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients in the state of Maryland has been withdrawn from the Senate Judiciary Proceedings Committee by its sponsor, Sen. Ronald Young.

“I think it’s a reaction of relief that, for this year, this very dangerous legislation is not moving forward,” said Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the Maryland’s Catholic bishops, who opposed the bill.

Russell expressed gratitude to those who had spoken against it, including advocates for the disabled, advocates for the elderly, doctors and mental health professionals, “for coming forward and making sure this legislation was seen for what it is.”

“As was made patently clear by opponents to the bill,” she said, “it would impact the lives of vulnerable people in multiple ways that can’t be fixed by amending the bill.”

Anya Naegele, associate director of respect for life for the Maryland Catholic Conference, agreed, adding that while some of the proponents of the bill were motivated by an experience with a terminally ill loved one, the opposition was driven by “the practical implications of this bill as it would manifest itself in a regulatory environment.”

Opponents had noted that the bill would have required two medical doctors, not a mental health professional, to determine that the patient had the “capacity” to make medical decisions before being prescribed lethal medication.

“It’s a very, very complex determination,” Naegele told the Catholic Review, the online publication and magazine of the Baltimore Archdiocese.

She added that subtle coercion on the part of a family member or party that would stand to benefit from the patien’s death might not affect the patient’s decision-making capacity, but might “affect the freedom with which the decision is made.”

The bill also would have required medical doctors to determine that the patient was not “suffering from a condition that is causing impaired judgment.”

Some members of the Judiciary Proceedings Committee wondered whether a terminal diagnosis itself, the bill would have made lethal drugs available to those with a prognosis of death within six months, could cause a “condition,” such as depression, that might hamper a patient’s judgment.

Opponents of physician-assisted suicide, which did not move forward for the second consecutive year in Maryland, will not be surprised if proponents return next year or in the future.

“In Maryland and around the country, proponents have been very aggressive on pushing this forward, regardless of how much opposition there is,” Russell said. “We’re hopeful that the very strong coalition of opponents would remain engaged and involved.”

“We’re just going to continue to do what we do every day,” Naegele said, “and continue to think about these issues from the perspective of how they would affect the poor and the vulnerable.”

By Erik Zygmont

Zygmont is on the staff of the Catholic Review, the online publication and monthly magazine of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

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