TRENTON - The New Jersey Assembly narrowly passed a bill Thursday that would allow terminally ill patients to end their lives by obtaining and self-administering lethal doses of medication prescribed by a doctor.
The 41-31 vote - the minimum required to achieve a majority - came amid a national debate over physician-assisted suicide, also referred to as aid in dying.
A similar version of the bill has not advanced in the Senate, and Gov. Christie has said he opposes it.
Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old California woman diagnosed with a terminal brain cancer, recently moved with her husband to Oregon to take advantage of that state's "death with dignity" law, bringing new attention to the issue. She took lethal prescribed drugs and died this month.
Four other states allow terminally ill patients to seek aid in dying.
Compassion & Choices, an advocacy group that partnered with Maynard before her death, hailed the bill's passage as "our first victory in the memory and spirit of Brittany Maynard."
The New Jersey bill, sponsored by Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester), says that in order to obtain the drugs, patients must be "in the terminal stage of an irreversibly fatal illness, disease, or condition with a prognosis, based upon reasonable medical certainty, of a life expectancy of six months or less," as determined by an attending physician and consulting physician.
Supporters say the bill shows compassion to those who would like to end their lives on their own terms. Garden State residents appear to be divided on the issue: 51 percent support the proposal, and 38 percent oppose it, according to a Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll published in July.
Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D., Middlesex), who supported the measure, recalled on the Assembly floor the experience of his mother, who suffered from a terminal illness. "She lay in bed for two straight months. Before she died, she was 50 pounds, a bag of bones," Diegnan said. "Every day when I went to visit her, she would say to me the same thing: 'Patrick, I just wish I could die.'
"And I would say to her, 'Mom, just let go.' "
Other legislators deferred to the opinion of organizations such as the American Medical Association, which opposes the bill. In its code of ethics, the association says physician-assisted suicide is "fundamentally incompatible with the physician's role as healer, would be difficult or impossible to control, and would pose serious societal risks."
To obtain lethal drugs, the bill says, a patient must be a "capable" adult who has "voluntarily expressed a wish" to receive lethal medication, through oral and written requests to a doctor.
Two witnesses, at least one of whom wasn't a relative of the patient's and who wouldn't be entitled to his or her estate, would have to attest to the patient's desires.
Doctors wouldn't be required to write prescriptions, and pharmacists wouldn't be required to provide the drugs. If physicians did agree to help, they would be required to make sure that patients were aware of other treatment options, such as hospice and palliative care.
If a doctor determined that the patient may have a psychological or psychiatric disorder that caused impaired judgment, the doctor would have to refer the patient to a licensed mental-health professional.
In that case, a doctor wouldn't be allowed to write a prescription unless a psychologist or psychiatrist determined that the patient was capable of making health-care decisions.
Assemblyman Jay Webber (R., Morris) said the bill sent the wrong message about how the state values life.
"I suggest when you open the door to intentionally ending one's life, the right to die, the opportunity to die, can become the obligation to die - that people at the end of their lives might feel like they're a burden to others, a burden to family members, a burden to taxpayers, and decide that maybe they ought to think about prematurely ending their lives," Webber said.
A spokesman for Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) didn't respond to a request for comment, and a spokesman for Christie declined to comment.
Oregon became the first state to allow assisted-suicide, in 1997. Oregon voters twice passed ballot questions to authorize the law. It was ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, which didn't enshrine assisted suicide as a constitutional right but left the matter to the states.
Since then, 1,173 people have obtained prescriptions and 752 have died from ingesting medications authorized by the law, according to the state's most recent annual report.