By Patrick T. Brown, Catholic News Service     1/20/2016

TRENTON, N.J. (CNS) — At least for the foreseeable future, assisted suicide will remain illegal in New Jersey.

The state Senate’s legislative session expired at noon Jan. 12, ensuring that a bill that would have legalized the practice would not come to a vote.

The Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act had passed the state assembly in November 2014, and supporters of the practice had been lobbying state senators to pass the bill ever since.

It was a bill that Trenton Bishop David M. O’Connell had called “another tragic example of human hubris,” saying that Catholics in the state should speak out against the “choice we should never make.”

And speak out they did, flooding phone lines and inboxes with messages of opposition to a practice the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls “morally unacceptable.” Some legislators changed their mind about the bill after hearing from so many concerned constituents.

“There was never a groundswell of support for this bill,” Democratic Sen. Peter Barnes said in a statement after the legislative session expired. “On balance, we heard from many more voices opposed to this bill.”

One of those voices was Dawn Teresa Parkot, who was born with cerebral palsy and had testified before legislators against the bill.

“The legal option to commit suicide with a physician’s help would be perceived as an obligation by many terminally ill patients concerned about being a burden to loved ones,” Parkot told The Monitor, Trenton’s diocesan newspaper, after the legislation failed to come up for a vote.

The bill, Parkot said, “would have encouraged patients with years to live to give up hope.”

The issue gathered steam in New Jersey following the high-profile case of Brittany Maynard, a California woman with a terminal illness who moved to Oregon in 2014 to take advantage of that state’s physician-assisted suicide law and acquire life-ending drugs.

Two week after she took her own life, the New Jersey Assembly in a 41-31 vote Nov. 13, 2014, approved legislation to allow patients with a terminal diagnosis to acquire a lethal prescription.

In December 2014, the bill was brought in front of the New Jersey Senate Committee on Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens, which advanced the bill — without recommendation — after a long debate by a 5-3 vote. Two of the state senators who voted to release the bill from committee said they did so only to allow the entire Senate to consider the bill, and still had strong reservations about the legislation.

Throughout the legislative process, advocates such as the New Jersey Alliance Against Doctor-Prescribed Suicide spoke out against the legislation. The coalition was made up of a broad cross section of groups, such as the Center for Independent Living, Not Dead Yet, the American Academy of Medical Ethics, and the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.

Patients who had received a terminal diagnosis spoke to legislators about the bill, including J.J. Hanson, the president of the Patients Rights Action Fund, a former Marine who is now facing terminal brain cancer.

These witnesses had been “given a terminal diagnosis and told they only had two to four months to live, and they are still here several years later,” said Marie Tasy, executive director of New Jersey Right to Life, which was also part of the coalition against assisted suicide.

“They implored the Legislature not to pass this bill. They made it very clear that terminal diagnoses are not always accurate, and with proper treatment, many people … can go on to live a very happy and productive life for many years.”

It was a message that Catholic leaders in the state also were sending state legislators and their constituents.

“The only real ‘death with dignity’ is the one that follows a full ‘life with dignity’ as God our Creator has designed and intends it to be, with all its natural, God given human moments,” wrote Bishop O’Connell in November 2014.

“No one wants, seeks or enjoys sickness, suffering or the pain that touches every one of us in this journey through natural human life. But natural human life is, truly, a journey from its first moments in the womb through its last heartbeat and breath on earth.”

The legislation would have allowed an adult New Jersey resident who has been determined “to be suffering from a terminal disease that will cause death within six months” to obtain lethal medication to “end his life in a humane and dignified manner,” per the text of the bill. While the bill described itself as having “procedural safeguards” against abuse, Parkot said that the process was inherently unsafe.

“While those who wrote and modified the bill pointed to the alleged safeguards against its abuse,” Parkot said, “there was no way they can assure that the safeguards will be observed. There was no real means of assuring that those who participate in the process follow all the provisions.”

Throughout the debate, many supporters of the bill claimed that opposition to assisted suicide was almost entirely religiously based.

But Pat Brannigan, executive director of the state Catholic conference, said that “without question, the Catholic bishops of New Jersey and leaders of other faith based groups, spurred by their religious belief in the sanctity of human life, have voiced strong objection to (the bill.)

“But many groups, including those who don’t embrace any particular faith’s doctrine, have been just as active — or more active — in opposing the unforeseen consequences of assisted suicide.”

The broad-based coalition reflected other diverse efforts to stop the spread of assisted suicide, said Wesley J. Smith, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and a nationally known commentator on efforts to oppose assisted suicide.

“The best, indeed only, way to stop assisted suicide is to create a diverse coalition of politically strange bedfellows composed of the religious and secular, pro-life and pro-choice on abortion, the disability rights community, medical professionals, liberals and conservatives, and people of color,” Smith told The Monitor. “That combination looks like America. … It works almost every time.”

If the Senate had passed the bill, it would have gone to the desk of Gov. Chris Christie. In January 2015, he had told a caller into his monthly “Ask the Governor” radio show that he would “carefully consider” the bill, but that he had “real concerns” about any move toward legalizing assisted-suicide.

“All life is precious and is a gift from God,” said the governor, who is Catholic. “This belief of mine … informs my policies in a lot of different ways.”

Observers considered it very unlikely he would have signed the bill if it had reached his desk.

Tasy said pro-life advocates are maintaining vigilance for if — or when — future efforts to introduce assisted suicide to New Jersey arise.

“I think it will come back at some point, in some form,” Tasy said. “When it does, we will be ready. We will continue to fight this dangerous legislation and to stand up for those most vulnerable in our society.”


Brown is associate editor of The Monitor, newspaper of the Diocese of Trenton.