N.J. lawmakers consider allowing terminally ill patients to end their lives with medication

Laurie Wilcox, a retired nurse with rheumatoid arthritis, said her parents suffered through their final days and did not have the ability to end their lives peacefully with medication. (Joe Hernandez/WHYY)

Laurie Wilcox, a retired nurse with rheumatoid arthritis, said her parents suffered through their final days and did not have the ability to end their lives peacefully with medication. (Joe Hernandez/WHYY)

Lawmakers in New Jersey will consider a bill to allow patients with terminal illnesses to end their lives in consultation with a doctor.

If the measure is signed into law, New Jersey would join seven states and the District of Columbia in allowing people with fatal medical conditions to decide to die.

“What they’re looking for is the peace of mind that comes with knowing that they won’t have to unnecessarily suffer,” said Kim Callinan, CEO of Compassion and Choices. “They’re already going to die, and this allows them to die in a more compassionate way.”

The state Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee approved the measure Thursday, a few weeks after it had been approved by the full Assembly.

It requires an upvote in the full Senate before it goes to Gov. Phil Murphy for his signature.

Opponents hope it doesn’t get that far.

Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council, said there are not enough safeguards to protect against abuse of the system. He added that allowing terminally ill patients to end their lives sends the wrong message to other groups at risk for suicide, like teenagers.

“So we’re going to tell them, ‘No, don’t commit suicide’ on that one end. But on the other end, we’re going to say, ‘Well, OK, suicide is OK,’” Deo said. “I think it sends a mixed message. It’s not good.”

Deo and other critics also said these laws incentivize insurance companies to deny costlier treatment if physician-assisted suicide is an option.

The proposal would require a terminally ill patient to make two oral requests and one written request to a doctor for medication to end their lives.

There would be at least a 15-day waiting period between the first request and when the prescription could be written.

The doctor would have to explain the risks associated with ending one’s life medically and recommend that the patient seek additional treatment. A second doctor would have to certify that the patient is making an informed decision.

Two witnesses, including one who is not the patient’s family member, would have to sign the written request.

Laurie Wilcox, a retired nurse from Clark Township, New Jersey has rheumatoid arthritis that invaded lung tissue. Her sister, Melissa, has terminal lung cancer, and both of their parents died from lung disease.

Wilcox said her parents suffered through their final days and did not have the ability to end their lives peacefully with medication.

“Lung diagnosis, you die with air hunger, which is a very frightening thing,” Wilcox said. “I saw that in my mom’s eyes and I don’t want to have that in the last couple days of my life.”

Opponents said the policy could harm patients struggling to cope with their illnesses but who may have more time left than they think.

Kristen Hanson’s late husband died of terminal brain cancer. (Joe Hernandez/WHYY)

Kristen Hanson, a community relations advocate for the Patients Rights Action Fund, said her late husband J.J. was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and was told he had four months to live.

J.J. lived for nearly four years, and Hanson said he used the time to bond with her and his young sons.

“As many beautiful days as we had, there were dark moments,” Hanson said. “In J.J.’s fifth month of treatment, he went through some really dark days, and later on he shared that if he had had assisted suicide pills on his nightstand, he didn’t know that he wouldn’t have taken them.”

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