Assembly Committee Advances Assisted Suicide Bill in NJ

NEW JERSEY - Legislation that would allow physicians to prescribe life-ending medication to terminally ill patients was overwhelmingly approved in a committee hearing on Thursday.

A previous version of the bill passed the New Jersey State Assembly in 2014 by a slim margin, but it lacked support in the Senate and was never brought for a vote in the upper house, allowing it to expire in the last two-year legislative cycle. Its lead sponsor, John Burzichelli, has now re-introduced the measure. The committee’s decision, by a vote of 8–2, to advance the legislation seems to imply that the idea of doctors aiding terminally ill patients to end their lives has gained greater acceptance among legislators.

“It is certainly a very disappointing outcome and the numbers by which it passed certainly adds to our fears that it is getting closer to becoming law, and re-enforces the need for us to make an aggressive lobbying effort against it,” Rabbi Avi Schnall, Agudath Israel’s New Jersey director, who testified against the bill at today’s hearing, told Hamodia. He added that should the bill become law, it could ultimately endanger even those who “would not willingly choose death, Heaven forbid.”

“There is a very real concern of a slippery slope, where doctors, hospitals and insurers can pressure patients diagnosed with a terminal illness, people suffering from mental illness, and individuals with disabilities, to make the wrong choice.”

The Catholic Conference, as well as several individuals and advocacy groups, also testified to express their opposition. A marked change from the hearings held two years ago, however, was the absence of the state’s main medical association, which was then opposed to the bill, but has now taken a neutral stance.

The ACLU, a consistent supporter of doctor-assisted suicide, testified in favor, saying that the bill, known as the “Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act,” will allow terminally ill patients to have “autonomy.” They, too, were joined by several other organizations advocating for the passage of the bill, which has steadily gained support in the state according to an opinion poll.

The issue was originally slated to be heard by the Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee, but it has been reassigned to the Appropriations Committee, chaired by Mr. Burzichelli himself. The only “no” votes came from Gail Phoebus and John DiMaio, both Republicans.

Over the summer, the legislation gained a powerful endorsement from Senate President Steve Sweeney, who called it “something very humane” and pledged to “push hard for its passage.”

Governor Chris Christie has said publicly that he opposes the legislation, making it unlikely to be signed into law during what will be his final term in office. As such, the issue will likely be decided by his successor, who will be chosen in 2017’s elections.

Presently, only five states permit doctor-assisted suicide: California, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Vermont. However, many legislatures around the country are presently weighing similar legislation.

Rabbi Noson Leiter, who has been involved in advocacy against doctor-assisted suicide for many years, said that grassroots efforts could be key in the future of this bill and similar acts in other states. “It’s still somewhat of a new issue, which means it can be stopped at the grassroots level. If the frum community is able to make their representatives uncomfortable in supporting it, it could make a big difference.”