TRENTON, New Jersey — The New Jersey Assembly passed a bill Thursday that would allow physicians to prescribe life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients, an issue that dives deeply into philosophical issues and could become a test of Gov. Chris Christie's conservative credentials as he considers a presidential run.
The Assembly voted 41-31 in favor of the bill after emotional speeches from members who talked about lessons learned from the deaths of loved ones.
The vote had been scheduled for June but then scrapped. It returned to the Assembly's agenda less than two weeks after the physician-assisted suicide advocate Brittany Maynard ended her life under an Oregon law allowing terminally ill people to choose when to die. The death of the 29-year-old reignited debate about the concept nationally.
The state Senate has not yet taken up the legislation. If it is adopted, it's not known whether Gov. Chris Christie would sign it if it reached his desk. His office did not reply Thursday for a request for comment — and he often refuses to talk about pending legislation. Christie supports a "right to life," on some issues, including opposing abortion. But the coalition around this issue is not exactly the same as abortion.
It would take 48 votes to override a veto in the Assembly — or the support of at least eight of the nine members who were not present Thursday, along with those who voted for the bill.
The New Jersey bill is similar to laws already in place in Montana, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.
It establishes a procedure for patients to request to end their lives. A second doctor would have to certify the original terminal diagnosis and confirm the patient is capable of making the decision to die without pressure from others.
Opponents worry that there are not enough protections.
Groups including those who advocate for people with disabilities held a news conference in the State House earlier Thursday to object to the bill.
"Some people's lives will be ended without their consent through mistakes or abuse," predicted Norman Smith, a Robbinsville man who has cerebral palsy.
He and others said people could be pressured into suicide, and said that there are ways to relieve pain experienced by people with terminal illnesses.
Paricia Staley, a hospice nurse, said she deals with terminal patients in the desperate hours in the middle of the night. "They are not asking for suicide," she said. "They are asking for pain relief, they are asking for better oxygenation, they are asking for family members who are estranged to come back to them."
But supporters said the bill is compassionate and gives control to people who are dying.
Janet Colbert, a 68-year-old former oncology nurse who lives in Lakewood, has terminal liver cancer.
She said that if New Jersey adopts the law, it will mean she would not have to travel to another state to get drugs to end her life.
Colbert was in the State House on Thursday to talk about the bill.
She said she would consider suicide when she knew she would be bedridden and not have a life "that I feel is quality," but she said she would have to mix the drug cocktail and have the power to take it on her own.
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