By: Susan K. Livio
...The Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee voted 5-3 to let the “Aid in Dying” bill to proceed to the full 40-member Senate, but did so in a way that registered committee members concern and uncertainty by approving it "without recommendation."
TRENTON — After more than four hours of testimony from an emotional and at times combative audience that warned lawmakers they would diminish the value life for sick and disabled people, a state Senate committee today reluctantly approved a bill that would allow terminally ill patients to get prescription drugs to end their lives.
The Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee voted 5-3 to let the “Aid in Dying” bill to proceed to the full 40-member Senate, but did so in a way that registered committee members concern and uncertainty by approving it "without recommendation."
Sens. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic), Robert Gordon (D-Bergen) and Chairman Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) voted yes to allow to the bill to move forward, but agreed they would have voted no had it come up for a vote in the full Senate today.
"I'm not sure there are enough safeguards in place" to prevent the law from being abused, Vitale said
Noting he has seen a spate of suicides by distraught teens, Vitale said he worried "the message this might be sending to young people. When we pass laws like this, will they understand the difference, the nuance, that taking a life is okay under certain circumstances?"
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, (D-Gloucester), who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), said he would not call a vote on the measure Thursday, the last scheduled session before the end of the year. Sweeney said he and other supporters would embark on an "educational campaign" to discuss the matter with colleagues.
The bill is written for people with a terminal illness, defined as an incurable, irreversible and medically confirmed disease that will end the person's life within six months.
Patients suffering from a terminal disease who want to end their lives would have to first verbally request a prescription from their attending physician, followed by a second request at least 15 days later and one request in writing signed by two witnesses, according to the bill (A2270) that passed the Assembly last month. The patient's physician would have to offer the patient a chance to rescind their request, and a consulting physician would then be called upon to certify the original diagnosis and reaffirm the patient is capable of making a decision.
Family doctor Stephan Sher of Mt. Arlington, one of the few people who urged the committee to pass the bill, acknowledged many of his colleagues may disagree with him. "But let's be honest. Aid in dying is no great leap from what already occurs in medical practice today – the morphine drip," Sher said. "Yes the intent is to relieve pain, but you know what the outcome will be: death."
"As a physician, I support aid in dying because the very availability of the option enhances communication between doctor and patient," Sher added. "It promotes outcomes in line with the patient's wishes and desires, whether that's hospice, palliative care, or aid in dying. It should be up to the patient."
Maria V. Arvonio, a nurse and medical ethicist who chairs the National Association of Catholic Nurses, was one of many opponents from the medical field who argued patients may be making decisions based on flawed information.
"When did healthcare (workers) become astrologers able to foresee the future? How often are we put to shame basically because a person has lived longer than our medical expectations?" Arvonio asked. "If patients are allowed to make an autonomous and informed consent when choosing physician assisted suicide, is there decision tainted by coercion by fear of the unknown, such as death or the need to be dependent on others?"
Bernard J. Ernst, 60, of Toms River presented himself as a patient who has outlived five terminal diagnoses, including the latest that said he should have died two years ago. He has suffered 12 strokes, and his heart has stopped twice, he said.
"Guess what? I am still here," he said. "Don't let my pleasant and smiling appearance misguide you. I am in severe and agonizing pain 24-7. I was raised to 'offer up my pain,' and so I shall. I will enjoy every day on earth."
Opponents - some traveling as far as Seattle and New England states - quoted scripture and Martin Luther King Jr. Some wept, and one person raised his voice at the committee, exclaiming that passing the legislation was like condoning homicide. More than one dozen people in wheelchairs and motorized scooters waited for hours to get their chance at the microphone.
The bill has drawn the ire of many people with physical and developmental disabilities and their advocates. Curtis Edmonds, a managing attorney at Disability Rights New Jersey, a federally-funded legal advocacy organization, warned that such a law would define "what is perceived as an acceptable quality of life... and death as an obligation rather than autonomy."
The health committee held a hearing on the bill last week.
Correction: Senate President Stephen Sweeney said he will not post the bill for a vote on Thursday. Because of a typographical error, an earlier version of this story said it would be be ready for a vote.