TRENTON - The Assembly again gave narrow approval Thursday to a bill that would let terminally ill people end their lives with medication prescribed by a doctor.
The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester), would allow adult patients in "the terminal stage of an irreversibly fatal illness" or a condition with a life expectancy of six months or less to seek a prescription for self-administered medication.
It passed by 41-28 - the bare minimum required.
Whether it can pass the Senate is unclear. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said he had not begun working to garner support but would do so now.
Gov. Christie has said he has "grave concerns" about the measure. His office said Thursday that it would not comment until it had reviewed a final bill.
With Christie's term ending in January 2018, "it'll send a signal, if we gather enough votes in both houses, that a new governor hopefully would recognize that people should be able to end their lives with dignity," Sweeney said. But he also called it a "hard bill."
Supporters say terminally ill patients should have the right to seek aid in dying, which five states allow. In 2014, the Assembly approved a bill, but it did not come up for a vote in the Senate.
"It would almost be us walking away from who we are as a democratic society to not allow individuals to make those choices," said Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D., Burlington), citing Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old California woman with terminal brain cancer who moved to Oregon because of the state's "death with dignity" law. (Since Maynard's death in 2014, California has enacted aid in dying.)
The American Medical Association has opposed physician-assisted suicide, which it says is "fundamentally incompatible with the physician's role as healer" and "would be difficult or impossible to control."
Assemblyman Jay Webber (R., Morris), who opposed the bill, told lawmakers that seniors and others who don't want to be a burden on their families could "almost see it as an obligation to die."
Backers say the bill - which would apply to adult patients diagnosed by both an attending and consulting physician as terminally ill - has appropriate safeguards. Patients would have to make two oral requests and a written request for self-administered medication to end their lives, with the oral requests at least 15 days apart.
The attending physician would have to give patients information about risks and alternatives, refer them to a health-care professional to discuss other care and treatment options, and notify them that the request could be rescinded at any time.
The patient's written request would have to be signed by two witnesses who say that the patient is capable of making the decision, and at least one of the witnesses could not be a relative or entitled to any part of the patient's estate.
Physicians would be required to refer patients to a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist, if they suspect the patient has depression or a psychological or psychiatric disorder.
Ethan Andersen, New Jersey field director for the advocacy group Compassion and Choices, said the New Jersey legislation was modeled after Oregon's.
In states permitting aid in dying, there "hasn't been a single documented case of abuse and neglect," he said.
At a news conference organized by New Jersey Right to Life and others Thursday, opponents expressed a number of concerns, including a fear that patients with disabilities would be vulnerable.
Some said they had outlived diagnoses. Dennis Castellano, 50, of Garfield, said he was told four years ago that he had 2½ months to live. But his daughter, now 13, "saw me fight for life."
Supporters said people who were terminally ill should have a choice.
Debra Dunn of Paramus said her husband had not been able to digest food while battling pancreatic cancer and was emaciated before his death.
"He said three times he wanted to die, and there was nothing I could do," said Dunn, a nurse. "People don't have the understanding of what it is to live with somebody who is actively dying."