Earlier this year, the New Jersey legislature passed a death with dignity bill called the Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act. Governor Phil Murphy signed the bill into law on April 12, 2019. It was supposed to take effect on August 1, 2019, but is now under a temporary restraining order.
The problems it was meant to solve
The new law will allow terminally ill patients to request aid in dying in certain clearly defined situations.
Many states have similar regulations, sometimes called “physician-assisted dying” or “death with dignity.”. Aid-in-dying is currently legal in eight jurisdictions, including California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Montana, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. Maine’s assisted-death law will go into effect in 2020. One in five Americans currently live in jurisdictions where such an option is available.
The New Jersey Aid in Dying bill does not allow mercy killing, euthanasia, or assisted suicide. It is meant to give terminally ill patients a choice in how their life will end by allowing them to request life-ending medications.
Often, those who suffer from a terminal illness experience prolonged and immeasurable pain. Many patients, though they would still prefer to live, choose to die in a more gentle way when they know the end is imminent.
Sometimes, it’s not even about the pain and suffering. It’s simply a way to maintain a final bit of dignity and control over one’s own life. For supporters of the law, the ability to have control over the circumstances of their death is a matter of dignity and autonomy.
When Governor Murphy signed the bill in April, he said, “By signing this bill today, we are providing terminally ill patients and their families with the humanity, dignity, and respect that they so richly deserve at the most difficult times any of us will face.”
What are the objections?
From the get-go, the NJ Aid in Dying Act has faced fierce opposition.
Many critics warn that disabled, vulnerable, and elderly people may face pressure from outside parties or unscrupulous family members to unnecessarily end their lives.
Others, such as the Catholic Church, call it an “affront to human life.” The Diocese of Trenton said that a terminal diagnosis isn’t always accurate, and people may make the choice using false or incorrect information.
The Medical Society of New Jersey also opposed the bill, saying that it will put physicians at odds with their professional ethical requirements.
Other common arguments against death with dignity bills include:
· A patient’s suffering can be lessened through palliative care
· Assisted death demeans the value of human life
· Many religions believe that taking your own life is against God’s will
· Assisted death is a slippery slope and will lead to legalized murder
· Pressure from insurance companies may lead doctors to force patients to end their own lives
· The cost of care may lead people to choose death over unaffordable medical bills
How the writers of the bill attempted to safeguard against abuses or misuses of the law
All assisted-death laws, not only in New Jersey, take specific measures to safeguard against misuse of the law.
To request a prescription for life-ending medication in New Jersey, a patient must be:
· at least 18 years old
· a New Jersey resident
· mentally capable of making and communicating health care decisions, and
· diagnosed with a terminal disease that will result in death within six months.
A patient who meets the requirements above will be prescribed aid-in-dying medication only if:
· The patient makes two verbal requests to their doctor, at least 15 days apart.
· The patient gives a written request to the doctor, signed in front of two qualified, adult witnesses.
· The prescribing doctor and one other doctor confirm the patient’s diagnosis and prognosis.
· The prescribing doctor and one other doctor determine that the patient is capable of making medical decisions.
· The patient has a psychological examination, if either doctor feels the patient’s judgment is impaired.
· The prescribing doctor confirms that the patient is not being coerced or unduly influenced by others when making the request.
· The prescribing doctor informs the patient of any feasible alternatives to the medication, including care to relieve pain and keep the patient comfortable.
· The prescribing doctor asks the patient to notify their next of kin of the prescription request. (The doctor cannot require the patient to notify anyone, however.)
· The prescribing doctor offers the patient the opportunity to withdraw the request for aid-in-dying medication before granting the prescription.
As of August 2019, physicians may not prescribe medications under the law.
A Mercer County Superior Court Judge issued a temporary restraining order on the new law on August 15th, halting implementation until at least October 23.
On August 16, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal immediately filed an appeal to the temporary restraining order. The New Jersey Supreme Court denied his petition to allow the Aid in Dying Act to be in effect while the lawsuit resolves.
The matter is now resting with the state’s Appellate Court, which is tasked with deciding whether or not the law should be overturned.