By Jennifer Popik, JD, Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics
New Jersey State Senator Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), the powerful chairman of the Senate Health Committee who had been the prime sponsor of a doctor-prescribed suicide bill, announced that he has withdrawn his support for the measure.
Vitale told online news source NewJersey.com
“I initially supported the idea of the bill and signed on. After a time, I had more questions and concerns than answers. So I thought it was honest to remove my name and continue to think about it.”
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) agreed to sponsor the measure in the upper house after Vitale withdrew. The bill recently passed out of the New Jersey Assembly with the minimum 41 votes needed.
However, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) has gone on record saying he opposes any so-called “death with dignity” assisted suicide bill.
All this is taking place in the aftermath of 29-year old cancer patient Brittany Maynard’s highly publicized suicide. Compassion and Choices, a national assisted suicide advocacy group, is hard at work in New Jersey and other states, using Maynard’s tragedy to advance its legislative agenda.
However, in state after state, reactions such as Vitale’s have been common. Frequently support for legalizing assisting suicide, initially very high, drops when debate and advertising points out the broad effect and likely abuses associated with legalization bills and referenda.
Among the factors that give pause to many when they become better known are that under such legislation, before a doctor prescribes a lethal prescription, there is no requirement for a psychiatric evaluation. Further, despite the so-called requirement that a patient must be terminally ill, many patients are living far beyond the six months they supposedly have left. In addition, heirs with a financial interest in the suicide victim’s death are authorized to serve as witnesses to verify that the victim’s request for the lethal prescription was voluntary and competent.
And should any dispute arise, it is difficult to go back and see if the law is even being followed. Doctors not only self-report their participation, the bills actually require that the death certificate be falsified to list a disease, not suicide, as the cause of death.
Documentation on how supposed safeguards are failing can be found here.
Over the past 20 years, despite well over one hundred legislative efforts and many ballot initiatives, assisting suicide advocates have only been successful in only a few states.
Three states have statutes that explicitly allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses to terminally ill patients (Oregon, Vermont, and Washington). Montana’s highest court ruled that consent is a defense to a charge of homicide, arguably thwarting prosecutions in cases of assisting suicide. In New Mexico, a lower court decision that protective laws violate the state constitution is on appeal. – and two courts permit the practice (Montana courts found there to be no policy against it in the state. A second District court decision striking the state ban on assisting suicide is currently being appealed in New Mexico.)
This year, as in years past in New Jersey, a very broad coalition of organizations ranging from disability rights groups to state medical societies, as well as right to life groups, have mobilized to oppose legalization. They point out that members of vulnerable groups–including the elderly, those with disabilities, and those suffering from mental illness–are not protected from being pressured to agree to commit suicide.