By Burke J. Balch, J.D., director, National Right to Life’s Powell Center for Medical Ethics
On November 13, 2014, the lower house of New Jersey’s legislature voted 43 to 31 to legalize doctor-prescribed suicide. The bill may yet be stopped in the state senate or vetoed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has declared his opposition to legalization. Were it to become law, however, legalization in New Jersey would endanger the lives of many who have never agreed to be killed because of court decisions in that state.
Ever since the 1976 New Jersey Supreme Court case of In re Quinlan, the state’s courts have held that if someone who has the capacity to do so voluntarily has a legal right, it is unconstitutional to deny that same “right” to someone mentally incapable of choosing to exercise it. Under the doctrine of “substituted judgment,” someone else, such as a relative, must be given the ability to choose, purportedly on the incapacitated person’s behalf, to exercise that right.
Quinlan led the nation in applying this substituted-judgment doctrine to rejection of life-preserving medical treatment. Under that doctrine, vulnerable patients then incapable of making health care decisions for themselves have been denied treatment, or even food and fluids, that could have preserved their lives. The result has been the death of countless thousands– possibly hundreds of thousands– of people who had never asked to die.
If doctor-prescribed suicide becomes a statutory “right” in the state of New Jersey–or in any of the many states that have followed that jurisdiction’s leading in recognizing the doctrine of substituted judgment–it will take only someone bringing a court case to establish the “right” of a grandmother with Alzheimer’s disease to be killed at the direction of someone deemed to have the authority to make that decision.
In short, whether they realize it or not, if New Jersey lawmakers buy “voluntary” euthanasia, the state’s citizens will soon get nonvoluntary euthanasia as well.