New Jersey became the eighth state in the country to legalize assisted suicide on Friday.
Democratic governor Phil Murphy signed legislation that will allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medicine to patients who have been diagnosed as terminally ill. The measure had failed to pass several times before February when state senate President Stephen Sweeney removed two Democrats who had previously opposed assisted suicide from the committee charged with voting on the bill. It was then approved by a 6-3 vote before passing the Senate 21-16. The Democrat-controlled Assembly voted 41-33 in March. Murphy said giving doctors immunity for helping patients kill themselves is the best course of action to respect "the dignity and autonomy of capable individuals."
"Individuals may thoughtfully and rationally wish to bring an end to their own suffering but cannot do so because the law prevents it and compels them to suffer, unnecessarily and against their will," Murphy said in a signing statement.
He used the signing statement to offer insight into his beliefs as a self-described "lifelong, practicing Catholic" given the Church's opposition to assisted suicide. Murphy said imposing his faith on other people would be wrong in the case of assisted suicide, though it can be used if it informs and enhances "deeply held progressive values…such as raising the minimum wage."
"I have concluded that, while my faith may lead me to a particular decision for myself, as a public official I cannot deny this alternative to those who may reach a different conclusion," he said.
Matt Valliere, executive director of the Patients Rights Action Fund, said Murphy and other lawmakers had already imposed upon the lives of vulnerable individuals by signing the bill. He said patients will now feel pressure from heirs and insurance companies to seek out lethal prescriptions as a cheap alternative to expensive treatments or hospice and palliative care.
"Vulnerable New Jerseyans are now at risk of deadly harm through mistakes, coercion, and abuse," Valliere said in an email. "People with disabilities, the economically disadvantaged, and terminally ill patients are at greatest risk—dangerous public policies often ignore the voices of the vulnerable. They are already at a disadvantage when they try to gain equal access to healthcare, and this law will only increase the challenges they face."
Assisted suicide advocates, who prefer the term "medical aid in dying," praised the governor and Democratic leaders for overcoming past opposition to the practice. Eight states and Washington, D.C., allow assisted suicide, meaning that 70 million Americans will have access to life-ending medicine, according to Compassion & Choices. While similar measures have failed in other states in recent months, including Democratic strongholds such as Massachusetts and Maryland, the group's CEO, Kim Callinan, expects more states to follow. For now C&C is focusing on helping New Jersey implement the new law.
"Given our growing tidal wave of momentum nationwide, it is only a matter of time before every resident of every state has this peaceful dying option," she said in a statement. "We will help the Murphy administration implement this law as smoothly and quickly as possible to ensure dying New Jerseyans can use this option, if they need it."
Dr. T. Brian Callister, governor of the Nevada chapter of the American College of Physicians, said he does expect the transition to be a smooth one for patients in New Jersey. Callister, who testified against the bill before the state Senate, said the new bill "does not respect the freedom or humanity of New Jersey residents," though it will help pad the wallets of insurance companies.
"Freedom of access to life-saving healthcare has just been cut drastically by giving insurers a cheaper way out: physician-enabled suicide," he said. "The inherent value and dignity of human life has been cheapened and devalued today in New Jersey."
The bill will take effect on Aug.1.