TRENTON - Legislation allowing physicians to prescribe life-ending medication to terminally ill patients who request it was advanced Monday by a state Senate committee.

The Health, Human Services, and Senior Citizens Committee approved the "Death With Dignity Act" after a hearing that started in the morning and, except for a pause so senators could vote, lasted well into the evening. The Assembly passed similar legislation in November amid a heated debate.

The measure is now headed for the full Senate, but it was unclear whether the bill has enough support to pass. Committee Chairman Sen. Joe Vitale (D., Middlesex) said he would not vote for the bill on the floor but he allowed it to advance. He said that the bill deserves to be fully vetted but that he does not believe it has the votes needed to pass.

Supporters say the legislation offers the terminally ill a way to end their lives on their own terms.

Delores Lewis, a social worker from Newark, said at the hearing that the bill's most important aspect was decriminalizing what is already a difficult decision.

"I'm a Christian. I'm a social worker. I'm a public servant. I'm a mother. I'm a grandmother," she said, adding that she supports the bill.

Opponents say the measure violates their religious faith and could influence ill people to take their own lives against their wishes.

"I'm pursuing life," said Dennis Castellano of Nutley. Castellano has a kind of brain cancer called astrocytoma; his doctors gave him 21/2 months to live two years ago, he said.

"When they could no longer help me, I took it to prayer," he said.

The New Jersey legislation is similar to laws in Montana, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.

The issue came to light after 29-year-old Brittany Maynard ended her life in November under an Oregon law that permits the terminally ill to choose when to die.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who controls the Senate agenda, said the measure could offer the terminally ill a "dignified way to die."

"It certainly isn't right for everyone, but it may be right for some, and that necessitates we look at it to determine whether this is something that should be available to certain patients in New Jersey," he said in a statement.

Spokesmen for Gov. Christie did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

For the legislation to take effect, New Jersey residents would have to approve it through the ballot.