By Mary Morrell | Correspondent

“Do we, as a state, want to tell those suffering and in hardship that we will pay for you to die, but not for you to live?”

The question was posed as part of the testimony of Sister of Charity Patricia Codey, Esq., president of the Catholic HealthCare Partnership of New Jersey, Princeton, in opposing the Assembly “Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act” (A1504) in a hearing March 12 before the state Assembly Judiciary Committee in Trenton.

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An overflow crowd in attendance for the hearing – including disability advocates, health care professionals, caretakers, as well as those with terminal or life-threatening illnesses – had the opportunity to register their opinion on the bill, which would allow physicians to prescribe drugs to end the lives of terminally ill individuals considered to have six months to live and allow those individuals to self-administer medications to end their lives.

After more than three hours of testimony, the bill cleared the Assembly Judiciary Committee by a vote of 5-2 and now goes to the floor of the General Assembly. The Senate version (S1072), sponsored by Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-22), was introduced Jan. 22, 2018, and referred to the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizen Committee, chaired by Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-19). There has been no movement on S1072 in the Senate.

Among the more than 20 people who also offered testimony in opposition of A1504 were Patrick  R. Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference; Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, senior research scholar in the The Kennedy Institute of Ethics and Andre Hellegers professor of biomedical ethics, both Georgetown University; Dr. T. Brian Callister, associate professor in the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, and Mishael Azam, senior manager of legislative affairs, Medical Society of New Jersey.

In addition, nearly 600 messages in opposition to the bill were sent to legislators prior to the hearing through the NJCC online Voter Voice alert system.  

In his testimony, Brannigan stressed, “In an era of cost control and managed care, patients with lingering illnesses may be branded as a financial liability that undermines company profits. The facts are clear – in states that passed assisted suicide bills, insurance companies have denied individuals health care coverage but offered them low-cost drugs to end their life.”

Brannigan offered examples of patients in California, Vermont and Oregon who were denied coverage for cancer-fighting drugs but were offered coverage for drugs to end their lives. One patient, who suffered a fall and was subsequently placed in a nursing home, was not terminally ill, yet was repeatedly offered drugs to kill herself.

Jennifer Ruggiero, director of the Diocese of Metuchen’s Office of Human Life and Dignity, said she found it interesting that “throughout the hearing, there was an ongoing debate over the use of the word ‘suicide,’ when referring to this bill.  The proponents insisted that this act does not constitute suicide, preferring the euphemisms, ‘aid-in-dying’ or ‘death with dignity.’  Those against the bill called for honesty and pointed out that, in fact, the patient is given a lethal prescription to self-administer with the intention to kill himself, which clearly constitutes ‘doctor-prescribed suicide.’” 

In addition, Brannigan underscored that the bill “would allow the death certificate to list the cause of death as the underlying terminal disease – not assisted suicide.  That misstatement on a legal document is the filing of a fraudulent report.  The cause of death should be listed as self-administered drugs that ended life.  Why not tell the truth?”

Brannigan identifies the bill as “a well-intentioned mistake,” one that would result in serious unintended consequences. Among them, sending the wrong message to troubled youth and military and veterans who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder.

 “If we pass a law that says it is OK to end your life if you have pain, physical or psychological, what would be telling our youth who are troubled? Would we be saying it’s OK to take the path of suicide? In 2012, more active duty military members committed suicide than were killed in combat. What would A1504 be telling our veterans suffering from PTSD?” Brannigan queried.

Testifying on behalf of CHCPNJ, Sister Patricia described the legislation as unnecessary. “New Jersey law already gives every patient the right to refuse extraordinary end-of-life treatment. Current practice promotes palliative and hospice care and advanced pain management treatment. We believe that public policymakers should ensure that New Jersey leads the nation in providing its residents with access to comprehensive end-of-life and palliative care, not aid in dying,” she said.

In concert with Brannigan’s testimony, Sister Patricia emphasized, “Allowing aid in dying provides a quick fix at a low cost. The bill focuses on the financial gains of ending life prematurely, rather than the patient’s quality of life until the end.”

Reiterating the long-standing opposition of the American Medical Association with which the Medical Society of New Jersey stands, Azam testified, “Simply put, physicians should not be asked to cause or facilitate death in this manner. … Our AMA strongly opposes any bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia, as these practices are fundamentally inconsistent with the physician’s role as healer.”

Azam posed a question that is not addressed in the bill: What if the self-administration of the drug does not work?

“Section 15 [of the bill] states that this bill does not allow ‘any act that constitutes assisted suicide.’ But, isn’t the determination of eligibility and prescription of a lethal medication in fact assistance? This bill does in fact create a physician-assisted suicide model, but creates a horrific situation in which a physician must only watch a patient’s failed suicide attempt. Is she then required to try to save the patient’s life, or must she allow the patient to suffer for hours or days?”

As the bill goes to the floor of the General Assembly, Brannigan stressed that people should contact their local legislators and the governor to make their voices heard. The NJCC website has a link to a list of state legislators and contact information by diocese and an opportunity to voice opposition to A1504 through their Faith in Action, Voter Voice link.