Janet Colbert of Lakewood is terminally ill with a rare form of liver cancer but she isn’t looking for sympathy, because “I am having a great life.” What the 68-year-old former oncology nurse said she wants is the legal right to choose how she will die.
Colbert came to the Statehouse Monday to ask the state Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee to approve “Aid in Dying” legislation that would allow a doctor to write a prescription for drugs that she could take to end her life…”When my time comes, I would like to have the peace of mind and comfort that comes with aid in dying – to know that if the pain gets unbearable, that I can choose to die in peace, with dignity, free from pain and surrounded by loved ones.”
The bill is written for people with a terminal illness, defined as an incurable, irreversible and medically confirmed disease that will end the person’s life within six months.
Committee Chairman Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) invited only six speakers to testify — three for the bill and three against it, because he said he wanted to be “deliberate about it and give committee members enough time to ask questions and take a breath and absorb the information they are given.” But in doing so, he angered a vocal group of disability advocates who weren’t on the speakers’ list, but were among the 200 people who came to the hearing anyway.
Patients suffering from a terminal disease who want to end their lives would have to first verbally request a prescription from their attending physician, followed by a second request at least 15 days later and one request in writing signed by two witnesses, according to the bill (A2270) that has passed the Assembly. The patient’s physician would have to offer the patient a chance to rescind their request, and a consulting physician would then be called upon to certify the original diagnosis and reaffirm the patient is capable of making a decision.
Oregon, Vermont and Washington have enacted physician-assisted suicide laws, while court rulings have allowed the practice in New Mexico and Montana.
…Ed Barocas, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, rejected the idea the legislation could be used against people who are not terminally ill. “Let’s be clear that the people covered by the bill — and there are multiple protections to make sure of this — these people are going to die. Death is coming, the question is are we going to force those individuals that over the course of weeks or months to live in pain and suffering…or are we going to allow them the dignity to have choices?”
Mishael Azam of the Medical Society of New Jersey suggested “dignified” choices already exist to allow people to plan for end of life care. Long before people get sick, they can complete an advanced directive form that addresses how people want to address pain management or whether they want to “withhold nutrition” when medical options have been exhausted.
“Dignity comes with advance planning,” she said.
The state Assembly passed the bill last month. The committee didn’t vote on the bill — Vitale said at least one more hearing will be scheduled so all points of view would be heard.