N.J. takes tough first step in allowing terminally ill right to die

It couldn't have been an easy decision for members of the New Jersey Assembly to pass the state's Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill act Thursday, but it was a compassionate and humane one.

By a vote of 41-28, with five abstentions, the legislators answered the fervent pleas of patients hoping to avoid a death marked by unremitting pain.

The measure, which now heads to the Senate, allows state residents diagnosed with six month or fewer to live to request a prescription from their doctors to end their lives. It is similar in intent to laws in California, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Vermont. 

The bill's future remains uncertain. Even if it finds favor in the Senate, the likelihood of a blessing by Gov. Chris Christie is slim, at best.

But today we want to give a shout-out to Democratic Assembly members John J. Burzichelli (Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem), Tim Eustace (Bergen and Passaic), and Joe Danielsen (Middlesex and Somerset) for their dedicated stewardship of the measure.

Although they represent geographically dispersed regions of the state, the lawmakers were united in responding to constituents who have overwhelmingly supported a death-with-dignity measure, as do more than two-thirds of the American public.

More than anything, the bill is about options – options for dying people who have far too few of them.

A haunting presence in the debates leading up to the vote was Brittany Maynard, whose youthful face came to symbolize the right-to-die movement.

Diagnosed with a brain tumor, Maynard moved to Oregon with her husband when the thought of spending her last days suffering from seizures, unable to control bodily functions and experiencing relentless pain became intolerable.

Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) echoed Maynard when she challenged her detractors: I would not tell anyone else to choose death with dignity. My question is: Who has the right to tell me I don't deserve this choice?

"I ask you not to take the opportunity away from someone else who is suffering," Singleton pleaded with his colleagues.

The bill was crafted with safeguards to assure that it isn't misused or abused.

Patients would be required to ask their doctors for the prescription first in writing and then twice in person, with 15 days between the oral requests.

The doctor would then have to give the patient an opportunity to rescind the request, and a consulting physician would be called in to certify the diagnosis and reaffirm that the patient is capable of making the decision.

We're glad this important bill is making its way through the halls of the State Capitol. Now we hope the senators and ultimately the governor give it the hearing it deserves.