Should a person who is terminally ill be able to control how and when they die? This issue has received national attention recently due to the well publicized cases of Brittany Maynard, a 29 year old woman diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor who moved to Oregon (one of only three states with statutes allowing for physician-assisted suicide) to legally end her life; and Barbara Mancini, who was arrested for allegedly helping her terminally ill, 93 year old father, end his life. Although Ms. Mancini’s case was subsequently thrown out by a Pennsylvania Court, unlike Oregon, the law in Pennsylvania and all but a handful of states, makes no allowance for life-ending procedures, even when death is imminent, the patient is suffering, and the patient has requested to die.
But the tide may be turning. In addition to Oregon, Washington, and Vermont, all of which have so-called “death with dignity” statutes, the Montana Supreme Court in Baxter V. Montana, ruled (by a 5-4 decision) that aid in dying provided by a physician to a terminally ill, mentally competent, adult is not against public policy and that “the physician who assists is shielded from criminal liability by the patient’s consent”. Earlier this year in New Mexico, a state court found that terminally ill residents have a constitutional right to obtain “aid in dying”. And last Thursday, following the reasoning of Oregon, Washington, and Vermont, the New Jersey State Assembly voted to pass a similar law allowing physicians to assist patients in dying. The legislation must still gain approval in the Senate, where another related bill appears to be blocked. Moreover, even if the legislation is successful in the New Jersey Senate, Governor Christi may veto it.