News Analysis

The grim march of assisted suicide goes on

(Getty)

New Jersey’s assisted dying law went into effect on August 1st, making it the eighth American state that allows terminally ill patients to self-administer deadly drugs with a doctor’s prescription, and the seventh to legalize the practice legislatively.

The law has several provisions meant to temper – or euthanize – the objections of moderates, like requiring a second opinion from a doctor and the presence of an unrelated witness to the patient’s request.

The Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act has been a priority of New Jersey Democrats for years, having been introduced in several different legislative sessions. Former governor Chris Christie threatened to veto it when the issue came up in 2014 and it died in the Senate. Now that there is unified Democratic control, the measure has become law.

The Assembly’s Democrats announced their success with a statement about the new “thorough process to allow terminally ill patients to choose their end of life option.” Anodyne as a glass of warm milk.

Assemblyman Tim Eustace said in a statement at the time: “There are many strong opinions on this issue, but the truth is, only these patients understand what it is like to know death is approaching and have your last few months of life riddled with pain and angst.”

Both Governor Philip Murphy, who signed it in April, and one of the assemblymen who sponsored the bill, John Burzichelli, are Catholic.

“As a lifelong, practicing Catholic, I acknowledge that I have personally grappled with my position on this issue. My faith has informed and enhanced many of my most deeply held progressive values,” Murphy (pictured) wrote in a signing statement. “On this issue, I am torn between certain principles of my faith and my compassion for those who suffer unnecessary, and often intolerable,pain at the end of their lives … After careful consideration, internal reflection, and prayer, 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.”

Compassion and Choices, America’s most prominent assisted-suicide lobby, said that the law was “the culmination of 7 years of on-the-ground organizing by Compassion and Choices” and volunteers.

Bishop of Metuchen James Checchio published a statement condemning the new law on July 29, which said that the “Passage of this law points to the utter failure of government, and indeed all society, to care truly, authentically and humanely for the suffering and vulnerable in our midst especially those living with an incurable disease as well as the frail elderly, the infirm and those living with disabilities.”

“Assisted suicide is a grievous affront to the dignity of human life and can never be morally justified,” Checchio’s statement continued. “The legal permission now granted to this practice does not change the moral law. With this law, the elderly could feel undue pressure to view this as an option to prevent being a burden to others and young people will begin to think that people can and should be disposable.”

Cardinal Archbishop of Newark Tobin also condemned the law when it was signed by Gov. Murphy in April, calling it “morally unacceptable”.

Maine legalized the practice in June. Similar laws are under debate in other states, such as Massachusetts, which debated a new bill earlier this summer. The same group of advocates testified in support of it on Beacon Hill, such as former NPR host Diane Rehm and terminally ill doctor Roger Kligler. Compassion and Choices endorsed the bill.

In other states that have already legalized assisted suicide, the practice has gotten more radical. Oregon watered down the 15-day waiting period initially present in its physician-assisted suicide law this July. Fabian Stahle, the anti-euthanasia activist, also argued that “under Oregon’s assisted death law, one can achieve the status of being ‘incurably’ sick even if the disease can be treated.”

It’s easy enough to draw a link between support for assisted suicide and a certain individualistic ethos in the Birkenstocks-and-crystals Pacific Northwest or the rugged mountain West. Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S Thompson both took their own lives in the Rockies. And in New England, it’s an issue backed by the Chautauqua set. They’ve held bizarre opinions since Puritan times. But now that it’s made inroads in the mid-Atlantic, what’s more in a state that used to be heavily Catholic – and perhaps nominally still is – it somehow feels more real, a sign of a deeper malaise.