By Jennifer Popik, J.D., Legislative Counsel, NRLC’s Powell Center for Medical Ethics
In the fight against the spread of doctor-prescribed suicide, one battleground state has put the brakes on this dangerous measure – for now.
After an emotional day of testimony, the New Jersey Senate Health Committee voted to release to the Senate floor an Oregon-style bill to legalize assisting suicide but “without recommendation.”
Although bill co-sponsor Senate President Stephen Sweeney said he would continue to try to “educate” his fellow legislators, the legislative session ends today, and he said he will not call a vote on the divisive measure. Therefore, while a vote could in theory still happen, it appears unlikely at this time.
The bill, promoted by Compassion and Choices (formerly the Hemlock Society), would permit doctors to write lethal prescriptions for suicide for terminally ill patients who requested it.
However, the bill is wrought with problems. Ultimately, the committee decided it was just too dangerous when it advanced the bill “without recommendation.” Senate Health Committee Chair Joseph Vitale (who had been an original sponsor, but removed his name from the bill) was quoted as saying, “I’m not sure there are enough safeguards in place.”
Reactions such as Vitale’s have been common when proposals for doctor-prescribed suicide are introduced. Frequently support is initially very high, then drops when debate points out the broad effect and likely abuses associated with legalization bills and referenda.
That is exactly what happened in New Jersey. People from the disability rights community, the medical community, and others lined up to testify about the dangers this kind of bill poses. A NJ.com article entitled, “After emotional hearing, reluctant N.J. Senate panel releases ‘Aid in Dying’ bill” reported
More than one dozen people in wheelchairs and motorized scooters waited for hours to get their chance at the microphone.
The bill has drawn the ire of many people with physical and developmental disabilities and their advocates. Curtis Edmonds, a managing attorney at Disability Rights New Jersey, a federally-funded legal advocacy organization, warned that such a law would define “what is perceived as an acceptable quality of life… and death as an obligation rather than autonomy.”
In New Jersey and in other states, opponents have consistently argued this law puts vulnerable groups at risk, including the elderly, those with disabilities, and those suffering from mental illness. Under the proposed law, these groups are not protected from being pressured to agree to commit suicide – pressured because others patronizingly view their quality of life as being low.
Other factors that give pause to many when they become better known are that under such legislation, there is no requirement for a psychiatric evaluation before a doctor prescribes a lethal prescription. 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 fact, the Senate health committee heard testimony both from members of the medical community and personal stories that people frequently outlive clumsy and difficult-to-make predictions of terminal diagnoses.
While this bill appears to be done for the session, New Jersey Senate members should still be urged to voice opposition to this measure in this session, and if it should be reintroduced next session.
It is important to be aware that Compassion and Choices is on the move in over a dozen states, vowing to march ahead with dangerous doctor-prescribed suicide legislation. Over the past 20 years, despite well over one hundred legislative efforts and many ballot initiatives, assisting suicide advocates have been successful in only a few states. But that could change rapidly.
It is imperative that this time be used to educate friends and family about this legislation – that killing is not a solution to problems associated with illness. Talking points and information can be found here.