Senate Committee Advances Assisted-Suicide Bill in NJ

Lakewood -

Legislation allowing physicians to prescribe life-ending medication to terminally ill patients who request it was advanced Monday by a New Jersey State Senate committee.

After a hearing that lasted over five hours, the Health Services and Senior Citizens committee voted to bring the “Death with Dignity Act” for debate and vote before the full senate, but did not give its recommendation to this controversial bill.

“Even though it did advance, we did have some very positive signs yesterday,” said Rabbi Avi Schnall of Agudath Israel of New Jersey. “Two of the Democrats that voted for it [in the committee] said that they do not intend to vote it into law, but feel that it is important enough that it deserves to come before the full senate.”

Rabbi Schnall said that the Agudah intends to wage a strong campaign to lobby key senators on the issue and encouraged all New Jersey residents to call their representatives and voice their opposition to the bill.

In an issue that has become largely partisan, a significant amount of Democratic no-votes would be needed to defeat the bill.

“They were pressured to vote for it,” Senator Robert Singer, a committee member, told Hamodia in reference to the two senators who chose to advance the bill while voicing opposition to it. “Remember that this bill is sponsored by the president of the senate. Usually when a law comes out of committee it is being recommended. Why else wouldn’t someone vote their conscience on an issue like this?”

Senator Joseph Vitale, one of the two senators in question, emphatically denied that pressure played any role in his decisions.

“There are times that we advance bills without the majority recommending them,” said Sen. Vitale in an interview with Hamodia. “The committee system is designed as a filter. Sometimes if an issue is very important we will send it to the senate, even if we oppose it.”

The senator added that the main reason for his opposition was a concern that “it sends the wrong message to young people who may not be able to appreciate the nuance between ending one’s life because of a terminal illness and [doing so because of] some painful personal experience.”

The legislation was passed by the state assembly by a margin of only one vote in November. The quick debate in the lower legislative house came on the heels of the widely reported death of a 29-year-old suffering from brain cancer, who was prescribed lethal drugs in Oregon, one of four states that permits the practice.

“One of the major legal arguments of the bill’s supporters is that not letting patients choose to die interferes with their right to autonomy,” said Rabbi Schnall, who was one of nearly 30 presenters at Monday’s session. “We pointed out that the government goes to great lengths to prevent people from jumping off bridges and out of windows. Why is there a distinction between the autonomy of healthy and sick people?”

Areas of concern cited by the bill’s opponents include worries about abuse by hospitals and insurers, and pressure from family members. Worry that decisions may be made as a result of depression is also a key factor voiced by many.

A source who attended the proceedings said that the state’s medical association testified against the bill, expressing a position that such a practice would corrupt the role of doctor as healer.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, who controls the senate agenda, said the measure could offer the terminally ill a “dignified way to die.”

“It certainly isn’t right for everyone, but it may be right for some and that necessitates we look at it to determine whether this is something that should be available to certain patients in New Jersey,” he said in a statement.

“This bill was rushed through the assembly and now it is being rushed through the senate, without giving anybody time to digest it,” said Senator Singer. “What I find amazing is that when we debated capital punishment, people were so worried: ‘What if we make one mistake?’ Now those same people don’t seem worried about that. It happens all the time that people are told they have a few months to live, and they live much longer. Of course there will be mistakes.”

The bill is expected to be brought to the senate floor sometime in the coming months. Were it to pass, it would require the signature of Governor Chris Christie, who has said publicly that he opposes the legislation.

(With reporting from Associated Press.)