New Jersey joined seven other US states on Thursday in enacting a medically assisted suicide law which allows terminally ill adult patients to obtain drugs to end their lives. Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy signed the bill in April after it was passed by the Democrat majority Assembly and Senate.
The law, called the Medical Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act, applies only to patients over the age of 18 with a prognosis of six months or less to live.
Legislators have been pushing for the law to be passed since 2012 but were stymied by opponents of the controversial law.
Supporters of the law say that it allows patients to make their own choices about how they die, preserving their dignity. Opponents of the law claim that assisted suicide laws prey on society's most vulnerable populations, such as the disabled, the elderly and the poor.
"Simply put, the legalization of assisted suicide represents, in my view, bad medicine, bad ethics and bad policy," says Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, acting director of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics and professor of biomedical ethics at Georgetown University.
"Once this is legal, the question is always on the table, and the person who is terminally ill has to justify why they haven't taken the option," Sulmasy stresses. "That's a huge amount of pressure – even if they never do it, the question is always being put to them, by everyone around them and by society."
"This is society saying that if you are dependent, if you're disfigured, if you are shunned by other people, if you feel like you've lost your autonomy, then your life can be judged to be not worth living," Sulmasy concludes.
To avoid abuse of the law, the law includes several safeguards. Patients must voluntarily request the medication twice and must be allowed to change their minds and rescind their decisions.
Also, at least one of the requests for lethal medication must be in writing and signed by two witnesses and then signed by two doctors. One of the relatives must be someone who is not: a relative of the patient, an inheritor of the patient's estate, the owner or a worker of a health care facility where the patient is receiving services, or the patient's personal doctor.
Once the proper requests have been made, written and signed, the patient must be the one to actually administer the drug and the attending doctor must offer other options for care, such as hospice or palliative care.
"This is simply about supporting somebody at the very worst moment in their life, and allowing them to have some level of autonomy over their decision-making," says Kim Callinan, CEO of Compassion & Choices, a nonprofit supporting end-of-life care options.
In 1997, Oregon was the first US state to pass a law allowing assisted suicide, followed by Washington in 2008, Montana in 2009, Vermont in 2013, California in 2015, Colorado in 2016, and Hawaii in 2019. In September, Maine will enact a similar law, becoming the ninth state. Additionally, the District of Columbia enacted a law allowing the practice in 2017.