In 2019, the New Jersey legislature passed a death with dignity bill called the Medical Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act. Governor Phil Murphy signed the bill into law on April 12, 2019, and it took effect on August 1, 2019. The new law allows terminally ill patients to request aid in dying in certain clearly defined situations.
In the period between August 1, 2019 and December 31, 2019, the latest period for which statistics are available, 12 people received prescriptions under the act. (For additional statistics, see the Medical Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act 2019 Data Summary published by the New Jersey Department of Health.)
This article first clarifies some confusing language related to death with dignity laws and then sets out the basics of New Jersey's law.
“Death with dignity” is one of the most commonly accepted phrases describing the process by which a terminally ill person ingests prescribed medication to hasten death. Many people still think of this process as “assisted suicide” or “physician assisted suicide.” However, proponents of death with dignity argue that the term “suicide” doesn't apply to terminally ill people who would prefer to live but, facing certain death within months, choose a more gentle way of dying. In fact, New Jersey's law states that terminating one's life under the law is not suicide. (N.J. Statutes § 26:16-17 (2020).)
Increasingly, health organizations are turning away from the term “suicide” to describe a terminally ill patient's choice to reduce the suffering of an inevitable death. The phrase “aid in dying” is becoming a more accepted way to refer to this process.
You may also see the phrase “right to die” used in place of “death with dignity.” However, “right to die” is more accurately used in the context of directing one's own medical care—that is, refusing life-sustaining treatment such as a respirator or feeding tubes when permanently unconscious or close to death. You can provide your own health care directions by completing a New Jersey advance health care directive. (See the end of this article for more information.)
To request a prescription for life-ending medication in New Jersey, a patient must be:
A patient who meets the requirements above will be prescribed aid-in-dying medication only if:
To use the medication, the patient must be able to ingest it on their own. A doctor or other person who administers the lethal medication may face criminal charges.
In addition, no other person—such as a health care agent, attorney-in-fact, or conservator—may make a request for aid-in-dying medication on behalf of the patient.
The New Jersey Department of Health posts information, forms, and updates here: https://www.nj.gov/health/advancedirective/maid/.
You can read the full text of New Jersey's Medical Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act on the New Jersey legislature's website. (See N.J. Statutes §§ 26:16-1 and following.)
To find out more about the history and current status of death with dignity laws in the United States, visit the website of the Death With Dignity National Center.
For information about appointing a health care agent and making known your own wishes for medical care at the end of life, see the Living Wills & Medical Powers of Attorney section of Nolo.com.
Updated December 31, 2020