On April 12th, New Jersey joined seven other States which have enacted laws authorizing a terminally patient to self-ingest a drug that would end their life. Oregon was the first State to allow this, in 1997. The New Jersey bill was A1504/S1072. It will go into effect on August 1, 2018. Over two dozen other States are actively considering such legislation.
The Act specifies criteria for who is eligible to take advantage of its protections: The individual must be an adult over 18 and able to self-ingest the medication. They must have a terminal diagnosis with a prognosis of six months of less, and they must be determined to have full mental capacity. The Act allows such an individual to make and carry out an “informed decision” to ingest a fatal drug. Informed decision is defined as:
“a decision by a qualified terminally ill patient to request and obtain a prescription for medication that the patient may choose to self-administer to end the patient’s life in a humane and dignified manner, which is based on an appreciation of the relevant facts and after being fully informed by the attending physician of:
(1) the patient’s medical diagnosis;
(2) the patient’s prognosis;
(3) the potential risks associated with taking the medication to be prescribed;
(4) the probable result of taking the medication to be prescribed; and
(5) the feasible alternatives to taking the medication, including, but not limited to, concurrent or additional treatment opportunities, palliative care, comfort care, hospice care, and pain control.
There are many steps in the procedure protocol. First, the individual must originate the request by making two spoken (oral) requests to the physician, with a 15 day waiting period in between; the doctor must bring in a consulting specialist to confirm capacity; the doctors may refer the individual for psychological or psychiatrist for further capacity evaluation if capacity is not clear; the doctor must offer the patient the option to rescind his or her request. The individual also must complete a specific form and submit it to their doctor; the form will be titled “REQUEST FOR MEDICATION TO END MY LIFE IN A HUMANE AND DIGNIFIED MANNER.”
The written request must be witnessed in a manner similar to other legal documents, in which two witnesses attest to the individual’s capacity (competence) and willful voluntary act. One of the witnesses must be “disinterested” — not standing to benefit in any way from this death. The physician must also refer the individual to an appropriate health care professional for a discussion about other treatments or palliative care at the end of life. Ultimately, the doctor can then prescribe the medication.
The law contains requirements related to patient record-keeping so that every step of the process is well documented. Persons who participate in good faith with the process, or to decline to participate, are given immunity against criminal and civil liability, and are protected against professional disciplinary action related to their licenses. There are also protections that prevent life insurance and other contracts from restricting an individual’s rights under the Act, and each step of the way must be carried out by the individual and not by a proxy. For example, neither a legal guardian, agent under power of attorney, or health care representative could act in the place of the individual.
For individuals facing harrowing end of life decisions, the new Act will provide important and welcome relief from suffering. A plan can be put in place to assure that the transition for the individuals, and the safety and security of those left behind, can be as peaceful as possible.
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