Doctor-Prescribed Suicide – Battle on Two Fronts: New Jersey and Vermont

By Jennifer Popik, JD, Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics

Jennifer Popik, JD

Jennifer Popik, JD

Although assisting suicide is only legal for a small fraction of the world’s population, advocates remain focused on promoting this dangerous legislation. Currently, doctor-prescribed suicide is legal in only Oregon, Washington, and Vermont –and may have some legal protection in the state of Montana, due to a court decision. While things are heating up in one state (New Jersey), Vermont’s newly enacted law is receiving a great deal of pushback.

The assisting-suicide advocacy group, Compassion & Choices, formerly the Hemlock Society, is at work in New Jersey. The bill pending in New Jersey is essentially the same language that governs both Oregon and Washington. The language, developed initially for Oregon, purports to “safeguard” the practice and restrict it to the terminally ill and the competent. However, the so-called safeguards have been widely criticized by medical groups and those in the disability right community.

The measure pending in New Jersey has gotten traction under the false notion that it will be providing terminally ill people with merely one more “option.” However, this is far from the truth.

The bill, A3328, was approved by the Assembly health committee, and Senate hearings on the companion bill, S2259, are expected this fall. If passed by the New Jersey legislature, the Act, as now written, would have to be submitted to Governor Chris Christie for his approval or veto. If approved, the measure would come before voters as a ballot question.

Diane Coleman, the President and CEO of the disability rights group “Not Dead Yet,” in a piece published in the New Jersey Star Journal titled “New Jersey Assisted Suicide Proposal is a dangerous prescription” warns of the dangers. She writes

“Predictions that someone will die in six months are often wrong; People who want to die usually have treatable depression and/or need better palliative care; Pressures to cut health-care costs in the current political climate make this the wrong time to add doctor-prescribed suicide to “treatment” options; and Abuse of elders and people with disabilities is a growing but often undetected problem, making coercion virtually impossible to identify or prevent.”

Meanwhile, this spring, Vermont approved the most aggressive doctor prescribed measure to date. (See “Vermont passes most dangerous assisted suicide bill in United States.”)

For the first three years, the Vermont law grants doctors immunity from prosecution for providing a lethal dose of medication if they follow a loose list of rules, including making sure the patient is terminally ill and making a voluntary, informed decision. In 2016, that list of rules expires, with the hope that doctors will have established their own personal guidelines.

This puts Vermont in a dangerous position, with a doctor prescribed death law, and no way to monitor abuse or protect the vulnerable.

The silver lining in Vermont is that since the bill was adopted via the legislative process, another vote could reverse the dangerous practice. A group, True Dignity Vermont is currently promoting repeal – and their video can be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=ah1n-9J52c4

Additionally, there is language in the law allowing hospitals to opt out. Right now, every single hospital in Vermont has opted out–if only temporarily. And according to a recent article from the Burlington Free Press, not one doctor has yet written a prescription.

If you live in New Jersey or Vermont, it is critical to point out that states cannot afford to legalize this dangerous and uncontrollable practice of turning doctors from healers into those who prescribe death to their most vulnerable patients.

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