Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill making New Jersey the eighth state to allow terminally ill residents to end their lives with medical help. Michael V. Pettigano and Nicholas Pugliese, North Jersey Record
New Jersey is now the eighth state to allow terminally ill residents to end their lives with medical help under a bill Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law on Friday.
The law gives state regulators, health care systems and doctors until Aug. 1 to prepare for the new policy, at which point certain patients will be able to ask for and self-administer lethal medication.
Murphy, a Democrat, explained his decision in an emotionally unguarded signing statement, touching on the tension between his Catholic faith and firsthand experience watching family members suffer.
“After careful consideration, internal reflection and prayer, I have concluded that, while my faith may lead me to a particular decision for myself, as a public official I cannot deny this alternative to those who may reach a different conclusion,” Murphy wrote, referring to the Catholic Church’s longstanding opposition to assisted suicide.
“I believe this choice is a personal one and, therefore, signing this legislation is the decision that best respects the freedom and humanity of all New Jersey residents,” he said.
The measure is set to take effect nearly seven years after it was first introduced in the Legislature, which approved the policy last month by a single vote in each chamber. Two previous attempts to enact the measure failed in the face of opposition by former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican.
It remains to be seen whether the law will trigger legal challenges, as it has in other states that have decriminalized assisted suicide. Debate on the New Jersey measure has been highly contentious, with supporters arguing that sick people should have the right to end their suffering on their own terms and opponents warning of inadequate safeguards for vulnerable residents.
“With the signing of this bill to legalize assisted suicide, many vulnerable New Jerseyans are now at risk of deadly harm through mistakes, coercion, and abuse,” said Matt Valliere, executive director of the Patients Rights Action Fund, a national advocacy group that fought the measure in New Jersey.
The law, dubbed the Medical Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act, is modeled after a measure first implemented in Oregon in 1997. Since then, Washington, Vermont, California, Colorado, Hawaii and the District of Columbia have enacted similar policies, while a 2009 court decision cleared the way for the practice in Montana.
Terminally ill adults living in New Jersey who are deemed mentally “capable” will be able to request and then use a prescription for lethal medication.
Two physicians will be required to attest that the person had less than six months to live. The patient will then have to make two oral requests and one written request for the medication over a period of at least 15 days. During that time, doctors must discuss alternative treatment opportunities, such as palliative and hospice care, and offer patients a chance to rescind their request.
Patients who do choose to take the medicine must administer it to themselves.
Terminally ill residents who support the measure often say they are not sure whether they would take lethal medication themselves, but they would like to have the option.
“I think that it’s going to give a lot of people peace of mind, a lot of people who know that at some point down the road that this could come up for them,” Susan Boyce, a 55-year-old Rumson resident with a rare genetic disorder called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, said after the Legislature passed the bill last month.
Skeptics of the measure, however, have pointed out that New Jersey ranks among the worst states for end-of-life care and should instead be focusing on improving palliative and hospice care.
Some hospitals and health care systems, especially those that are religiously affiliated, may choose not to participate in the new policy, as is permitted under the law. Others may leave the decision up to individual doctors and create an internal process to help refer interested patients to supportive providers.
As it has in other states, the national advocacy organization Compassion & Choices says it intends to set up a searchable “Find Care” database in New Jersey to help patients find such providers. The organization also offers a “Doc2Doc” consultation service to help physicians talk to peers in other states who have experience with similar laws.
Several New Jersey doctors signed an op-ed that appeared in NJ.com last month backing medically assisted suicide. Deborah Pasik, a Morristown-based rheumatologist and the author of the article, has said she will use her network of medical professionals to try to build support for the policy.