by Bob Ingle
The Daily Journal
October 8, 2012
Mention “assisted suicide” and images of Dr. Jack Kevorkian come to mind; he’s the pathologist said to have helped at least 130 people commit suicide in the 1990s, saying “death is not a crime,” although he served eight years in prison for second-degree murder. Credit him with starting a national conversation about end-of-life issues and patient rights that continues.
It has to come to New Jersey in a direct way. Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-3, has introduced the New Jersey Death with Dignity Act (A-3328) that would grant physicians the right to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to willing patients with less than six months to live.
The Garden State would not be the first. In Oregon and Washington, it is legal for doctors to help the terminally ill in deciding when to die. Montana allows it through a court order. The issue will be decided by voters next month in Massachusetts. California, Maine and Michigan rejected similar laws.
Offshore, Switzerland allows assisted suicide, Belgium permits “euthanasia” and in the Netherlands physician-assisted suicide has been legal since 2002. A medical journal study of the Netherlands practice indicated little has changed in the decade since the Dutch law was enacted. Euthanasia and assisted suicide are roughly as common in the Netherlands as they were before the law went into effect.
One of the concerns people have about such laws is that someone might make a rash decision in a moment of pain or depression. The New Jersey bill would start with a verbal request for a prescription followed in 15 days by another verbal request and one in writing signed by two witnesses. The doctor has to give the patient a chance to rescind the request and a second doctor would have to certify the original doctor’s request and certify the patient is acting voluntarily and is capable of such a decision.
Even with safeguards to assure the patient is capable of making the decision to end life and has ample opportunity to undo it, the discussion is a difficult and emotional one because of long-held deeply-felt convictions about the sanctity of life. For many religions, the taking of one’s life is a sin.
The other side of the argument is a person’s life and body is his and he should be able to make decisions about it without government interference. Who is the government or religious institutions to tell us we have to continue to suffer when the end is inevitable? We take freedom very seriously in this country.
It is expected that some of the strongest opposition would come from organized religion. That is its right. We have a proud tradition of separation of church and state in this country, and our First Amendment right of freedom of religion also means freedom from religion for those who want it.
Talking about it as an abstract issue is not comparable to walking down that path. When you witness loved ones with uncontrolled nausea you realize medical marijuana should not be a political game played by the healthy, or when once strong individuals just don’t want to fight disease any longer it may break your heart but it is their life and their suffering.
Twice in my life I have been the caregiver of terminally ill friends. I made sure they had the “do not resuscitate” instructions they wanted in writing and I had them get a medical power of attorney, so if they became unable to make decisions or unable to communicate about end-of-life care there would be no misunderstanding.
In one case, the closest relative, a mother, told me if the decision had to be made about end-of-life procedures, she wanted me to make it. I told her I would follow his wishes. “I know,” she told me, “that’s why I want you to handle it.”
Every day I am thankful it did not come to that. But I think the time has come to have a sane, logical discussion about Burzichelli’s bill, which is one of the more important ones our Legislature will consider. It needs to be slow and deliberate and serious.