Assembly Committee Advances Assisted Suicide Bill in NJ

New Jersey’s state capitol building in Trenton.

Legislation that would allow physicians to prescribe life-ending medication to terminally ill patients was overwhelmingly approved in a committee hearing on Monday. Leaders and advocates for the Orthodox community have described the measure as “dangerous” to all those living in the state and have made advocacy to stop it a high priority.

Previous versions of the bill passed the New Jersey State Assembly in 2014 by a slim margin and in 2016 with stronger support, but on both occasions, 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 Democratic sponsors have once again re-introduced the measure. The committee’s decision, by a vote of 5-2 to advance, seems to re-affirm that the measure still has strong support in the Assembly.

“We are certainly disappointed by the vote, but cannot say that we are surprised by it. In the past, we have seen that our arguments to stop this dangerous bill have found far more traction in the Senate, and that is where we plan to keep our efforts focused,” Rabbi Avi Schnall, Agudath Israel’s New Jersey director, who has advocated against the bill since its original introduction, told Hamodia.

The bill has been handed off to a different committee each time it has been introduced, based on estimates of where it could pick up the most support. Monday’s testimony and vote was in the Judiciary Committee.

The bill’s sponsors, Assemblymen John Burzichelli, Tim Eustace and Joe Danielsen, each celebrated the vote in statements released calling the legislation “humane” and an attempt to give “dignity” to patients diagnosed with terminal illnesses.

“These patients have been betrayed by their bodies in the worst way. Death is inevitable, but for these patients, it is precise,” said Assemblyman Eustace (D-Bergen/Passaic). “We cannot prevent them from dying, but we can at least allow them to do it with dignity.”

When the issue was first advanced, a letter signed by over 30 prominent Rabbanim and Roshei Yeshivah circulated, calling on the Orthodox community to fight the drive to legalize physician-assisted suicide, advocating that it be a “top priority” in voting decisions, as well as to directly contact their representatives to urge them to oppose it in Trenton. Recently, the letter was also signed by Harav Shmuel Kamenetsky, Rosh Yeshivas Philadelphia, and Harav Dovid Schustal, Rosh Yeshivas Beth Medrash Govoha.

Agudah has lobbied together with other religious organizations as well as with physicians and patient advocacy groups to draw attention to what they believe are the potential dangers of the bill.

Rabbi Schnall said that should the bill become law, it could ultimately endanger even those who would not necessarily choose to take the lethal prescriptions it would legalize for the terminally ill.

“It’s a very slippery slope,” he said. “If doctors, hospitals and insurers, who all have a vested interest in controlling costs, can pressure people who are already distressed and suffering physically and emotionally, that puts everyone in a very precarious situation.”

While Assembly passage is widely expected, its path through the Senate remains unclear. A factor that is giving supporters of the bill even more confidence this time around is newly inaugurated Governor Phil Murphy. The last times the bill was introduced, it was done during the term of former Governor Chris Christie, who had pledged to veto the legislation would it ever reach his desk. Governor Murphy has not announced a position on the matter and has declined to comment on the result of Monday’s committee vote.

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