Seven in ten Americans support the right of terminally ill people to die on their own terms. New Jerseyans will have that right as early as this week. The New Jersey legislature passed the Medical Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act on March 25, 2019. Governor Phil Murphy has indicated he intends to sign the bill, stating “allowing terminally ill and dying residents the dignity to make end-of-life decisions according to their own consciences is the right thing to do.”
New Jersey will become the eighth state to pass “right to die” legislation. The new law will allow terminally ill adults to receive medication from a physician for the purpose of ending their lives. The medication must be self-administered as is required by “right to die” legislation in other states.
The law includes a number of safeguards to protect patients. First, two physicians must determine the patient is terminally ill, with a life expectancy of six months or less. The patient must request the medication orally twice, as well as in writing. The written request must be witnessed by two individuals, at least one of whom is not a family member or heir. The prescribing physician cannot serve as a witness. Prior to writing the prescription, the prescribing physician also must advise the patient of the opportunity to change his/her mind. There is a 15-day waiting period from the first oral request. Physicians must provide documentation to the Department of Health confirming compliance with all of the requirements.
The law also requires physicians to recommend that the patient notify their next of kin, but does not require them to do so. Similarly, physicians must make a recommendation for a consultation regarding other treatment options, palliative care, and hospice, but does not require the patient to participate. In this way, the legislation recognizes the patient’s complete right to self-determination.
This law is widely supported by the public and advocacy groups. It will, no doubt, help many terminally ill patients die on their own terms. However, it does not apply to individuals suffering from advanced dementia, as the individual must be deemed capable of making their own health care decisions to qualify for prescription under the law. A surrogate cannot request the medication. If a physician has any uncertainty about the capacity of the patient, a referral must be made to a psychiatrist, psychologist, or clinical social worker to determine if the patient is capable. It should be noted that the law applies only to New Jersey residents; New York and Pennsylvania residents cannot seek medication from a New Jersey physician.
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