Supporters of legislation that would permit physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients in New Jersey have announced plans to push for its passage before the end of the calendar year, which could signal key votes on the issue in the coming weeks. Leaders and advocates for the Orthodox community have described the measure as “dangerous” to all those who live in the state and have made advocacy to stop it a high priority.
The bill has been before the state’s legislature for more than six years without ever coming to a vote on the senate floor, but its advocates have renewed confidence in its becoming law, as Governor Phil Murphy has signaled his support for the issue.
Rabbi Avi Schnall, Agudath Israel’s New Jersey director, said concerns that the measure could become law are well-justified.
“We have been through a lot of votes on this over the years, but until now we had an administration in Trenton that shared our opposition. Now, in light of Governor Murphy’s embrace of progressive policies, there is a very, very real likelihood that it could become law,” he told Hamodia.
Known as the “Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act,” the bill would allow doctors to prescribe lethal medications to a patient who is in the terminal stage of an irreversibly fatal illness, disease or condition with a prognosis, based upon reasonable medical certainty, of a life expectancy of six months or less.
The measure was first introduced in 2012 by Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D – Glouster), who has been its key champion in the legislature ever since. It has passed the Assembly several times, with increasingly large majorities. It was released by an Assembly committee this past March and is expected to be passed in a floor vote in the coming months or weeks.
The Senate committee on Health, Human Services, and Senior Citizens has voted to release the bill multiple times in the past years, but did so without offering its recommendation.
Despite a strong endorsement from Senate President Steve Sweeney, who in 2016 called it “something very humane” and pledged to “push hard for its passage,” the bill was never brought for a vote on the Senate floor. The six-year stall is likely a signal that it has lacked support in the state’s upper house, but might also have been a result of a pledge by former Governor Chris Christie to veto the bill should it have reached his desk.
In a recent media interview, Assemblyman Burzichelli signaled that the legislation could move forward this year.
“I’m optimistic the bill will move from the Assembly in October. I’m also encouraged that there are enough votes in the Senate in support of the bill,” he said. “And if everything falls into place, we should see it on the governor’s desk by the end of November.”
The Senate committee has not yet posted the bill for a vote. In the past its chairman, Senator Joseph Vitale (D – Middlesex) voted to advance the bill for a floor vote, but never pledged support. He did not respond to a request from Hamodia as to when the committee will consider the matter or whether his position has changed.
When the issue was first advanced, a letter signed by more than 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 advising the community to directly contact their representatives to urge them to oppose it in Trenton. Several months ago, the letter was also signed by Harav Shmuel Kamenetsky, shlita, Rosh Yeshivas Philadelphia, and Harav Dovid Schustal, shlita, Rosh Yeshivas Beth Medrash Govoha.
In addition to moral concerns, opponents fear that giving doctors a legal way to aid patients to end their lives would corrupt the role of the physician as a healer and would discourage medical professionals from administering life-prolonging treatments for patients who have been deemed terminally ill. An additional worry is that such a law would lead insurance companies to refuse to cover care for such individuals.
Advocates of the bill argue that allowing doctors to help terminally ill patients end their lives gives them the “autonomy” to determine their own fates. According to a recent opinion poll, the proposition has steadily gained popular support in the state.
At present, only California, Montana, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia permit doctor-assisted suicide. However, many legislatures around the country are weighing similar legislation, and polls show the issue garnering wide popular support in many areas of the United States.
The 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.
“It’s important for the Orthodox community to realize that this is a very dangerous bill for us too,” Rabbi Schnall said. “Even if we would never choose suicide as an option, this could change the whole way any seriously ill person is treated by doctors and insurers alike.”