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(TRENTON) - An Assembly panel on Thursday approved legislation sponsored by Assemblymen John Burzichelli and Tim Eustace, known as the "New Jersey Death with Dignity Act," which would allow voters to decide if New Jersey should create a process for terminally patients who wish to be provided medicinal assistance to end their lives.
"This discussion is about revisiting a statue last looked at in 1978 that never took into account an individual's right to control their body and their circumstances," said Burzichelli (D-Cumberland/Gloucester/Salem). "Medicine, palliative care and hospice services have changed dramatically since then. People faced with circumstances like a terminal illness, with less than six months to live, should have the right to control their circumstances and their fate in a way suited to them, their conscience and their faith. This is about freedom of choice and control of one's body."
Burzichelli noted that a number of polls show a majority support the measure, including a December Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll, which found that 46 percent of voters support the "Death with Dignity Act" while 38 percent oppose it.
If approved by voters, the bill (A-3328) 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 the patient is capable of making a decision.
The bill defines a "terminal disease" as an incurable and irreversible disease that has been medically confirmed and will, within reasonable medical judgment, result in a patient's death within six months.
"We understand that this is a very personal, passionate and, often, faith based issue for many people," said Eustace (D-Bergen). "This legislation goes to great lengths to ensure that no one with an impaired judgment or uncertainty would be eligible under this act. In the end, this is about allowing individuals the personal freedom to choose whether they want to live their final days with dignity rather than relentless pain."
Specifically, the bill provides that a patient may make a written request for self-administered medication in order to end their life in a humane and dignified manner if the patient:
1) is an adult resident of New Jersey;
2) is capable and has been determined by the patient's attending physician and consulting physician to be suffering from a terminal disease; and
3) 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 the patient would be permitted to administer the drug themselves. At least one of the witnesses must be a person who is not:
1) a relative of the patient by blood, marriage, or adoption;
2) at the time the request is signed, entitled to any portion of the estate of the qualified patient upon the patient's death under any will or by operation of law;
3) an owner, operator, or employee of a health care facility where the qualified patient is receiving medical treatment or is a resident; and
4) the patient's attending physician at the time the request is signed.
"The inevitable truth is that there comes a time for terminally ill patients when medicine no longer heals and barely eases the pain, stripping away that person's freedom to decide how they would like to live their remaining days," added Burzichelli. "This legislation would not compel anyone to end their life because of illness or depression, nor will it force anyone to act against their religious beliefs. This would simply allow individuals the choice of whether or not to end their life peacefully or to suffer through pain and a diminished quality of life."
The measure would be placed on the ballot for voters to decide upon at the next general election to be held at least 70 days following the date of the bill's enactment. If enacted, New Jersey would become the third state to address this issue through law.
The measure was approved 7-2-2 by the Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee and now awaits consideration by the full Assembly.
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