The measure, which would place the issue before voters, would permit doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to patients estimated to die within six months.
The bill is based on a statute in Oregon, the first state to legalize assisted dying, in 1994. Washington approved the practice in 2009. Five other states are considering assisted-death legislation this year.
The Legislature last discussed assisted suicide in 1978, when it criminalized the practice.
Under the current bill, terminally ill adults would have to request a lethal dose from their attending physician on two occasions, the second request coming at least 15 days after the first. The patient also would submit a written request signed by two witnesses who believe the person is "capable" and "acting voluntarily." At least one of the witnesses would be forbidden from having any family or medical connection to the patient or any stake in the patient's estate.
Only the dying person could administer the lethal dose. No doctor or medical facility would be required to participate.
It wasn't his sister-in-law's illness that motivated Assemblyman Burzichelli to introduce the bill in September; he hadn't even spoken to her about it. She called him after she read about the bill in the newspaper, he said.
But constituents have told him similar stories, he said, and he thinks New Jerseyans who are gravely ill want the option of choosing when to die. "When you say 'suicide,' I sense with confidence the average person thinks of an event related to something tragic," the lawmaker said during a hearing of the Health and Senior Services Committee. "But a person facing a terminal condition, firmly in control of their circumstances until the end of their time, is not a tragedy."
Opponents of the bill said doctors may offer a grim diagnosis that a patient far outlives, said Patrick Brannigan, executive director for the New Jersey Catholic Conference. Hospice and palliative care already help people die with as little pain as possible, he said.
"Our duty is to assist those who are dying, not to kill them," he said.
Claudia Dowling Burzichelli was diagnosed with lung cancer 18 months ago. "It's considered terminal," she told the committee, choking back tears. "Don't look up the statistics on the Internet. It's depressing."
After two months of treatment, the cancer stabilized, and Burzichelli is on maintenance chemotherapy to keep the cancer at bay, she said.
"On those days when I struggle to breathe, when I think about the stresses on my family, I would hope that I might have more options than starving myself or taking my life in a violent way, a more compassionate ending," she said.
"I don't truly know how I will feel if and when that time may come, but it comforts me to think there could be a process, a way to offer options that would not hurt my family."
The committee advanced the bill by a vote of 7-2 with two abstentions. The bill awaits a full hearing in the Assembly and has yet to be heard in a Senate committee.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex) has not decided whether she will schedule a vote, spokesman Tom Hester said. The bill and Thursday's testimony are being reviewed. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) "supports the bill in concept," said spokesman Chris Donnelly.
While some worry that legalizing assisted death could lead more ill people to kill themselves, the statistics from Oregon show otherwise. Of the 30,000 Oregonians who die each year, 0.24 percent do so by taking medication to end a terminal illness, said Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion and Choices, a national nonprofit. That percentage has remained relatively stable.
A total of 673 people in Oregon have ended their lives under the state's Death With Dignity Act, Coombs Lee said. About one-third to one-half of those who have the lethal dose of medicine filled never take it, she said.
At the committee hearing, Dr. Joseph Fennelly, chairman of the Bioethics Committee Medical Society of New Jersey, said doctors should use only passive methods, such as withholding treatment or food, to help dying people end their lives.
Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D., Burlington), a doctor and the committee chairman, challenged him. "If one has a right to die, then why would one not have the right to determine the time of one's death?" he asked.
The Legislature would have to approve the bill at least 70 days before the Nov. 5 election to get the question on this year's ballot. Burzichelli said he expected the process will take into next year.
Contact Joelle Farrell at 856-779-3237 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @joellefarrell.