State legislators in New Jersey are set to vote Monday on the “Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act.”
On the face of it, it sounds like some sort of palliative measure, something to ease the pain of people suffering from life-threatening illness.
The bill’s title is, of course, euphemistic. It conceals, albeit only somewhat, the grim nature of the thing: a law that would permit doctors to help people to die, otherwise known as physician-assisted suicide.
Even those who support such legislation, like its original sponsor Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D–Gloucester) and more recently New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, prefer such euphemisms. It makes it easier to sign one’s name to an instrument for ending human life. No responsible public servant would vote for murder or suicide, and doctors are glad to have their profession left off the bill’s title.
What they will be voting on, more specifically, is a law to 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 premise is, if the play on words be permitted, fatally flawed.
The phrase, “the terminal stage of an irreversibly fatal illness,” belies the reality, experienced countless times and known to almost all of us, of inexplicable remission, of patients surviving for years beyond the predicted deadline, of doctors who overestimated their own predictive powers.
Even if in most cases the medical prognosis is borne out, that doesn’t mean that the last months or days of life are wasted, chas v’shalom. Our faith teaches that every moment of life is precious and that there is meaning in suffering. People should be encouraged to live, not to die. And the state should not be occupied with providing legal mechanisms which will make it easier to end a patient’s life.
Gedolei Yisrael have opposed this legislation from its inception, and continue to oppose it.
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 this scourge, designating it a “top priority” in voting decisions. They also urged the community to directly contact their representatives to voice their opposition.
About a year ago, the letter was also signed by Harav Shmuel Kamenetsky, shlita, Rosh Yeshivah of the Yeshiva of Philadelphia, and Harav Dovid Schustal, shlita, Rosh Yeshivah, Beth Medrash Govoha.
Their consistent opposition, along with that of Orthodox representatives and their allies in the state legislature, has forced advocates to insert certain safeguards. Patients who request a physician’s assistance in ending their lives must undergo a psychological evaluation, have their diagnosis confirmed by a second doctor and make their request twice within a period of 15 days. Anyone found guilty of coercing someone to take the lethal medications could face a $15,000 fine or prison time.
While this is an improvement over the original bill, the essential danger remains.
“There are safeguards in the bill, but this is always going to be a bad and dangerous bill at its core and these protections are not going to change that,” said Rabbi Avi Schnall, Director of Agudath Israel of America’s New Jersey Division.
Assemblyman Gary Schear (D-Passaic) said “the idea of the state codifying suicide is so antithetical to everything that I hold sacred…[on this matter] I can’t be an apologist for this bill or for my party.” He told Hamodia that he found it “repugnant,” and intended to vote against it, even though it meant going against his own party leadership.
In addition, the matter affects not only New Jersey, but other state legislatures in the country that are considering similar legislation. Only a handful of states have so far given sanction to physician-assisted suicide. They are watching what happens in New Jersey, and one shudders to contemplate the consequences across the country should the bill pass on Monday. (Reported elsewhere in this paper, Maryland’s Senate committee cleared the way on Friday for an assisted suicide bill to advance to the Senate floor next week.)
State legislators in New Jersey have had six years and more to think about legalizing this anathema, literally a prescription for death. One can hope that that has been sufficient time for the conscience of at least a majority to conclude that the bill is immoral and should not be passed.
But for those lawmakers who have not yet decided or who may be wavering, it is not too late. Even in the last waning hours before the legislators cast their votes on this fateful proposal, there is time for New Jersey residents of the state to call and send emails to urge them to vote against it. And there is certainly time for Maryland residents to speak out.
We urge everyone to make their voices heard.