“Death with Dignity” is a term that has become prevalent in our society after Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman who contracted brain cancer, ingested prescription medication to end the dying process. Death with Dignity is often used interchangeably with the more common phrase, physician-assisted suicide, to refer to end-of-life options for mentally competent, terminally ill patients with a prognosis of living for six months or less. New Jersey, like several other states, has advanced legislation (the “Proposed Act”) to address these issues which implicate questions of patient autonomy, religious and moral beliefs and concerns that such action will be a slippery slope to coercive euthanasia of certain categories of the population. The Proposed Act has not been scheduled for review but it will likely take place later during the current legislative session.
The Proposed Act resembles legislation in other states that have enacted similar laws. Only Oregon, Vermont and Washington have legalized physician-assisted suicide by statute and Montana legalized physician-assisted suicide by a court ruling in Baxter v. State of Montana, 354 Mont. 234 (2009). At least six other states are debating legislation regarding physician-assisted suicide. The Proposed Act requires that patients electing physician-assisted suicide must be 18 years of age or older and capable of making independent health decisions. The decision must be voluntary, as determined by the patient’s attending physician and a consulting physician in the presence of two attesting witnesses. The physicians must confirm that the patient is suffering from a terminal illness with six months or less to live and at least one witness must not be a relative or beneficiary of the estate or an owner, operator or employee of the patient’s current health care facility. Additionally, the patient must not have any psychiatric or psychological disorders impairing his or her judgment and the patient must be deemed to be making an informed decision. The patient must make an initial oral and written request for physician-assisted suicide, then make another oral request 15 days later. Forty-eight hours must pass between a patient signing a request for physician-assisted suicide and writing a prescription for the life-ending drugs.