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Death with Dignity Act Wins Approval in New Jersey Legislative Committee

The Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee today passed the New Jersey Death with Dignity Act. The bill, which now goes to the full Assembly for consideration, would empower terminally ill adults to receive physician-prescribed medication giving them the choice of a peaceful death.

Barbara Coombs Lee, President of Compassion & Choices, hailed the vote as a victory for the movement for choice at the end of life. “We applaud the Assembly members who voted today on behalf of their constituents, and resisted the appeals of special interests,” she said. “People want and deserve something to say about how they might meet an imminent, inevitable death from terminal illness. This is true in New Jersey as it is across America.”

The bill, one of at least six moving in state legislatures across the country now, would give explicit permission to New Jersey doctors for aid in dying, the medical practice defined in Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. Five committee members voted in favor of the New Jersey measure, with two opposed; there were two abstentions.

The vote followed a hearing this morning during which witnesses presented powerful, emotional testimony, which clearly moved the committee members — some to tears. In addition to expert testimony, ordinary citizens from across the state testified in support of the bill. They said they, like the majority of Americans, believe they should have this choice if they face a terminal illness.

“I’m here today because I know what can happen when people don’t have choices,” said Claudia Burzichelli of Bridgewater. “Right now no doctor has talked to me about life expectancy. I am focused upon living and fighting. But I have Stage 4 lung cancer and the time may come when I could face death from my disease. I hope New Jersey will become a state that supports choice at the end of life.”

Coombs Lee delivered testimony on the importance of aid-in-dying legislation and the Oregon experience. “People across the country embrace the successful and sensible policy first approved in Oregon nearly two decades ago,” said Coombs Lee, president of Compassion & Choices. “Americans yearn to die in dignity and according to their own values, and 70 percent of Americans support aid in dying as a legitimate medical practice. Years of experience with open access to aid in dying — in Oregon, Washington and now Montana — prove that the laws work as intended, without any of the problems opponents predicted.”

The committee heard from opponents, including a representative who presented the Catholic Church’s opposition on religious grounds.

Oregon’s first-in-the-nation Death with Dignity Act (passed by ballot initiative in 1994) established that mentally competent, terminally ill people, who are facing death within six months, may receive a prescription for medication to end their suffering. Since then only 673 patients have taken medication under the Act’s provisions.

One-third to one-half of Oregon patients who receive and fill prescriptions never consume the medication. Simply knowing they control their destiny at the end of life brings peace of mind. And thousands more take comfort just knowing the option is available.

Leading national, professional medical associations support aid in dying because it empowers physicians to respect their patients’ wishes. The American Public Health Association, the American College of Legal Medicine, the American Medical Women’s Association and the American Medical Student Association support open access to aid in dying.

“Many dying patients suffer, even with the best care and pain management,” Coombs Lee said. “Others fear their pain will become unbearable. Ultimately, this personal choice should be left to the patient in consultation with their family and their doctor.”

Claudia Burzichelli hopes the legislature will act to make open access to aid in dying a reality. “This is my comfort: to think there could be a process, a way to offer options in a way that would not hurt my family,” she said.