Terminally ill New Jerseyans may soon be able to obtain prescription drugs to end their lives on their own terms.
An Assembly committee advanced a measure Thursday that would allow residents diagnosed with less than six months to live to obtain prescription drugs to end their pain and suffering.
Opponents argued that there are inadequate safeguards to ensure that the drugs don't wind up in the wrong hands, and the possibility that health insurers would encourage patients to end their own lives rather remain alive and continue to run up treatment costs.
Five states have similar measures including Vermont, where lawmakers approved it last year. A voter referendum on assisted dying failed in Massachusetts.
The bill was introduced as the "New Jersey Death with Dignity Act'' but was renamed "Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill.'' An amendment dropped a voter-approval requirement. The vote to advance it was 7-4.
"This is about someone's choice of how to conclude their life,'' John Burzichelli, the Assembly sponsor, said to kick off a three-hour debate. "Our question as lawmakers is, 'should the law provide another choice?'''
Proponents testified that terminally ill patients should be able to end their suffering. Burzichelli said some patients in states where aid in dying is legal purchase the end-of-life drugs but don't use them.
"All reports tell us they have great comfort in knowing that they have control of their circumstances, should the pain become too much, should their circumstances become overwhelming, should they find themselves in a place where they would rather not be,'' he said.
Physicians, hospitals and nursing homes would not have to participate. Terminally ill patients would need physician sign-off and would need to show mental competence. The dying patient would have to be able to swallow the medication unaided. There would be a 15-day wait period for the prescription to be authorized, then another 48-hour wait to get the drugs once they are approved.
But Marie Tasy, executive director of New Jersey Right to Life, which opposes the measure, questioned what would happen if a patient changed their mind after ingesting a pill, since no witnesses are required.
Others cited the possibility of an incorrect diagnosis.
"Often patients are misdiagnosed and could make an irreversible decision to die based on the wrong information,'' said Dawn Parkot, who has cerebral palsy but was misdiagnosed at birth and not expected to be able to reason or function independently.
Thursday's hearing was the first public discussion of the bill.