End-of-Life Choice, Palliative Care and Counseling

Gearing Up in New Jerseyby Jay

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It’s July, and students across the country are on summer vacation. But not activists for end-of-life liberty in New Jersey, who head this month to “lobbying school.” Advocates will learn from Compassion & Choices campaign staff about the Death with Dignity bill moving in the state legislature. They’ll train on how to persuade lawmakers, educate people about the bill and use their own experience to connect their advocacy to personal stories.

“Lobbying school is just one component of a multi-faceted New Jersey operation,” said Campaign Manager Mark Dann. “We’ve already seen success and we’re building momentum.” The bill, modeled after Oregon’s law, advanced in February through a key legislative committee. A poll conducted in March showed strong support among New Jersey voters for death with dignity both as a personal option and as legislation. Nearly two-thirds (63%) support allowing mentally competent, terminally ill adults to request a prescription for medication to end their suffering.

“Our objective now,” said Mark, “is to find people who are willing to translate their support into activism.” Mark leads a team that is scouring the state for additional support. In June, supporter Delores Lewis, the Senior Advisor to the City Council for Newark’s 38 senior public housing facilities, agreed to help the campaign build connections in the state’s largest city.

Leaders in various faith communities are adding their support. Rabbi Richard F. Address wrote an opinion piece published in  The Times of Trenton examining how various traditions guide their followers’ end-of-life decisions. Volunteer advocates across the state are forging effective connections by talking with the clergy in their own houses of worship.

Advocates are gathering signatures from friends, family, community members and fellow congregants for a petition that urges New Jersey legislators to support the Death with Dignity Act. You can sign the online version of the petition at our Website: http://cqrcengage.com/compassionandchoices/newjersey

All this legwork will position Compassion & Choices well for when the legislature reconvenes in the fall. When that time comes, the growing number of activists will be ready to share their personal stories. We witnessed in February how powerful those stories can be.

As The Star-Ledger reported:

Claudia Burzichelli of Bridgewater told the Assembly Health Committee in Trenton she knows too many people in her life who would have benefited from [a Death with Dignity] law: her father, diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease who shot himself in the head; a family friend with Crohn’s disease and other illnesses who asphyxiated himself in a motel room; and her mother-in-law, a cancer patient who stopped eating.

Then 18 months ago, she was diagnosed with a terminal disease — stage 4 lung cancer — the 54-year-old mother told the stunned committee, which includes her brother-in-law, Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester), who sponsored the legislation.

“On the days when I have struggled to breathe or think about the stresses on my family, I would hope I might have more options than starving myself or taking my life in a violent way,” Claudia Burzichelli said, fighting back sobs. “I don’t know how I will truly feel if and when that time may come. But it comforts me there could be a another way, other options.”

“I hope New Jersey will become a state that gives respect and dignity to those who are dying,” she added.

Barely four months later, cancer ended Claudia Burzichelli’s life. She gave the last full measure of devotion in an effort to secure compassionate options for people with a terminal illness. Mark Dann remembered her advocacy in a letter to The Times of Trenton:

Claudia will undoubtedly be remembered by most as a tireless advocate for the improvement of public education in New Jersey. I will remember her for her bravery in being one of the loudest and most sincere advocates for end-of-life choice in New Jersey.

If you’d like to get involved with Compassion & Choices’ New Jersey campaign or learn more about what we do, contact Mark Dann, mdann@compassionandchoices.org.