By Claire Jacobus
Nearly 40 years ago, I watched my mother die slowly in a hospital from an untreatable infection. During her final days, she told me that if she had the choice, she would end her own life on her own terms.
This was not an option for her, but it could be for others under the New Jersey Death With Dignity Act (A3328/S2259), which is expected to come up for a full vote in the Legislature within the next few months.
The New Jersey Death With Dignity Act would give terminally ill, mentally competent adults access to a complete range of options for end-of-life care, including the choice to request a prescription from their doctor for self-administered, life-ending medication.
Already legal in four other states, the Death With Dignity Act is not about death; it is about personal choice. It is about control over one’s body and the rights of patients to talk to their physicians about how they choose to spend their last days.
We would never deny a patient’s right to request every measure to prolong life, however futile. So why would we deny a patient’s right to a peaceful death, if that is her choice? This most personal of choices should be left to the patient, his or her doctor and loved ones.
Current law prohibits doctors from discussing the aid-in-dying option with their patients, forcing many terminally ill patients to endure a prolonged, painful death. Sadly, some of these patients seek to end their lives by themselves, often alone and in painful, violent or even unsuccessful ways.
The Death With Dignity Act would allow patients to discuss end-of-life options out in the open, leaving their families and doctors free of fear from running afoul of the law.
Understandably, the Death With Dignity Act raises some concerns among people who are unfamiliar with it. The law is very clear in its guidelines and builds in numerous safeguards to prevent abuse.
One guideline is that only adults diagnosed with less than six months to live can ask for a prescription for self-administered life-ending medication. The prognosis must be determined by a patient’s primary care physician and affirmed by a second physician.
Another is that patients must confirm in writing that the choice is made of free will, and two witnesses must attest to the patient’s soundness of mind.
New Jersey’s decision to allow death with dignity can also be informed by the experiences of other states that have death with dignity laws on the books. For instance, in Oregon’s 15 years with such legislation in place, only 673 individuals have used the option. Far more sought the peace of mind that comes with having life-ending medication on hand but chose to die without it.
Death is not an option. But when the time comes, options should be accessible to those who may choose to die on their own terms, surrounded by loved ones.
Should I find myself in such a condition during my final days, I would want the comfort that comes with knowing that death with dignity, dying on my own terms, is possible.
No one in our state should be denied the same choice. Let’s pass the New Jersey Death With Dignity Act.
Claire Jacobus lives in Princeton. She serves as vice chairwoman of the board of directors of Compassion & Choices, a national nonprofit organization that works to improve care and expand choice at the end of life.