This is a developing story. Last update: August 27, 2019.
A pair of court rulings has reinstated New Jersey’s Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act, allowing it to continue providing peace of mind to New Jersey residents with a terminal illness.
On August 27, 2019, the New Jersey Appellate Court overturned a lower court’s Temporary Restraining Order on the new law, confirming the plaintiff lacks standing in the case. Shortly after, the New Jersey Supreme Court denied the plaintiff’s emergency appeal in the matter.
A court date to decide the merits of the case is scheduled for October 23.
Nation’s Latest Aid in Dying Law Challenged in Court
Just before the first prescriptions under the Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act could be written, Mercer County Superior Court issued a temporary restraining order on the law. Judge Paul Innes granted a request by a physician who opposes the law on religious and philosophical grounds. All implementation of the law was halted.
The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office immediately appealed the ruling but the Supreme Court denied the appeal and sent the case to the appeals court. The Appellate Court took a week to issue a strongly-worded ruling.
“First, we note, as did the trial court, that plaintiff does not have standing to assert claims on behalf of other physicians, patients or interested family members. And, his claim that participation in the transfer of records makes him somehow complicit in a qualified terminally-ill patient’s informed decision to end his or her life, ignores the voluntary nature of his participation under the Act, and his already existing obligation under relevant regulations to provide a patient with his or her medical records.”
“[W]e conclude the [lower] court failed to consider adequately the interests of qualified terminally-ill patients, who the Legislature determined have clearly prescribed rights to end their lives consistent with the Act. In reaching this conclusion…we…readily acknowledge and respect plaintiff’s decision not to participate in the diagnosis or treatment of such patients, on either professional, personal, religious or moral grounds. His right to so abstain, however, does not outweigh those of qualified terminally-ill patients who the Legislature has concluded may end their lives as permitted under the Act.
70 Million Americans Have Access to Death with Dignity
New Jersey’s Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act took effect on August 1, providing residents with a terminal illness the option of assisted dying to relieve unbearable suffering at the end of life.
When New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed the act into law on April 12, the Garden State became the eighth jurisdiction to enact an assisted dying law.
“By signing this bill,” Murphy said, “we are providing terminally ill patients and their families with the humanity, dignity, and respect that they so richly deserve at the most difficult times any of us will face.”
Today’s bill signing will make NJ the eighth state to allow terminally ill patients the dignity to make their own end-of-life decisions – including medical aid in dying.
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) April 12, 2019
New Jersey advocate Debra Dunn’s husband endured painful suffering before dying of cancer in 2013, an experience that motivated to fight for the law. In an interview with CBS New York, she expressed her relief about the law’s enactment, and hope that today, she’d get a sign from her husband saying, “Thank you, Debbie. You did good.”
How the Law Works
New Jersey joins Oregon, Washington, Vermont, California, Colorado, Washington, D.C., and Hawaii in providing its residents who are dying from a terminal illness with the option to die peacefully using prescription medication. Maine’s law, passed in June 2019, is slated to take effect this fall.
As with all death with dignity statutes, the New Jersey law requires anyone seeking death-hastening medication to consult with two doctors who must agree that a patient has less than six months to live.
The patient must then make two oral and one written requests for medication, with a 15-day waiting period between the first and second oral requests. Physicians must wait 48 hours between receiving a written request and writing a prescription for medication.
Patients are required to self-administer the medication; when and where they do so is up to them. In this way, patients with terminal illness are able to die on their own terms, with dignity and control over their final days.
Culmination of a Long History
Efforts to pass a death with dignity law in New Jersey date back to 2012, when a pair of death with dignity bills was introduced for the first time.
In a historic vote, in November 2014, the New Jersey Assembly approved the Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act for the first time. Then Governor Christie indicated he’d veto it, and the bill died in a Senate committee. The Assembly passed a similar bill again in 2016; this time the bill also passed in a Senate committee.
A group of legislators, including three sponsors and 7 co-sponsors in the Assembly and two Senators, introduced the Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act in their respective chambers in January 2018. The bill wended its way through the legislature thru March 2019, when both chambers passed it; Governor Murphy signed the bill on April 12, 2019.
We are grateful to Assemblyman John Burzichelli, who, inspired by a constituent’s painful death, fought tirelessly for this law for many years; to all the advocates on the ground who worked long and hard to make this happen.
Featured image by mtstradling.