The 2019 legislative session has been a busy time for physician-assisted suicide activists and their adversaries. In the first three and a half months of 2019 alone, 20 states introduced legislation to legalize or expand physician-assisted suicide. Of those states, 11 defeated legislation and one, New Jersey, legalized assisted suicide. Nine states still have active legislation.
On April 12, 2019, after passing through the New Jersey General Assembly and the New Jersey Senate, Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation making New Jersey the seventh state to legalize physician-assisted suicide. Physician-assisted suicide is also legal in the District of Columbia, and potentially by court order in Montana. Under New Jersey’s new law patients deemed to be terminally ill, with six months or less to live, must make two oral requests and one written request in order to receive a lethal prescription. Prior to writing the prescription, the attending physician must inform the patient of alternative options, and if either attending physician (approval of the request by two physicians is required) notices that a “patient may have a psychiatric or psychological disorder or depression” he is required to refer the patient to a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist. The latter stipulation appears to be inauthentic for two reasons. First, psychiatric consultation is required only if the attending physician recognizes the need for it. Second, a patient requesting a lethal prescription is undoubtedly experiencing some type of depression. In Oregon, a state where assisted suicide has been legal for over 20 years, the 2018 data summary on assisted suicide reported that of the 168 people whose deaths resulted in ingesting lethal prescriptions, only 3 were referred for psychiatric evaluation.
One particularly disturbing aspect of the New Jersey law appears on the Request For Medication To End My Life In A Humane And Dignified Manner form: “I understand the full import of this request, and I expect to die if and when I take the medication to be prescribed. I further understand that, although most deaths occur within three hours, my death may take longer and my physician has counseled me about this possibility.” This stipulation is most likely due to the lack of uniformity in death times reported across the Northwest under similar laws. Kaiser Health News reported that “[i]n Oregon, even with fast-acting barbiturates, time to death has ranged from one minute to 104 hours during the 20 years the law has been in effect, state records show.”
Another disturbing aspect of New Jersey’s law regards the requirement of two witnesses. The following note accompanies the witness form: “At least one witness shall not be a relative by blood, marriage, or adoption of the person signing this request, shall not be entitled to any portion of the person’s estate upon death, and shall not own, operate, or be employed at a health care facility where the person is a patient or resident.” Thus 50% of the witness representation can be an individual who stands to benefit financially from the death of the patient.
The next physician-assisted suicide fight of 2019 is slated to occur in New York where Governor Andrew Cuomo has indicated that he would sign legislation to legalize physician-assisted suicide should it reach his desk.
States with Active Bills to Legalize or Expand Assisted Suicide in 2019
- Delaware: HB 140
- Maine: LD 1313
- Massachusetts: SD 395, HD 171
- Minnesota: HF 2152, SF 2286, SF 2487HF 2151F 2152
- New Hampshire: HB 291 (study committee bill)
- New York: S.3947/A.2694. A30 (study committee bill)
- North Carolina: HB 879
- Oregon: HB 2217, HB 2232, SB 579, HB 2903 (expansion bills)
- Rhode Island: S 0157, S 0320, H 5555
States with Active Bills to Prohibit Assisted Suicide in 2019
- Arkansas: SB 503 – Increases the penalties for assisting a suicide
- New York: S 647 — Prohibits insurance coverage for assisted suicide
States That Defeated Bills to Legalize Assisted Suicide in 2019
- Arkansas: HB 1536. Died in committee following a public hearing.
- Arizona: HB 2408, HB2512, SB 1193. Died in committee with no action taken on bills.
- Connecticut: SB 374, HB 5898. Died in committee due to insufficient votes to pass.
- Kansas: HB 2089. Died in committee with no action taken on bill.
- Indiana: HB 1184, SB 300. Died in committee with no action taken on bills.
- Iowa: SF 175, HF 374. Died in committee with no action taken on bills.
- Maryland: SB 311, HB 399. Defeated in Senate.
- Nevada: SB 165. Passed in committee, no action on Senate floor due to insufficient votes.
- New Mexico: HB 90, SB 153. House bill withdrawn due to lack of votes for passage. Senate bill passed in one committee and died in a second committee.
- Virginia: HB 2713. Died in committee with no action taken on bill.
- Utah: HB 121. Died in committee with no action taken on bill.
States That Enacted Bills to Legalize Assisted Suicide in 2019
- New Jersey: A1504, S1072. Passed in the Senate and Assembly, signed by Governor.
States That Defeated Bills to Prohibit Assisted Suicide in 2019
- Montana: HB 284 — Overturns the Baxter decision; failed in Senate
Hannah Howard, M.S. is a research associate at the Charlotte Lozier Institute