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New Jersey Assembly approves death with dignity bill

Lawmakers in New Jersey passed a bill Thursday that would allow physicians to prescribe life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients. The Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act passed the state Assembly 41 to 31, although it's not clear if the state Senate will act on it next.

The bill establishes a set of guidelines and procedures for patients seeking access to life-ending medication from a doctor, once it is confirmed they have no more than six months to live.

The bill was introduced by Assemblyman John Burzichelli, after his sister, Claudia Burzichelli, died of lung cancer in 2013.

"While there are many choices available right now that may be right for certain people, there is one more choice, not currently available, that deserves an honest discussion," Burzichelli said in a press statement.

The vote comes just two weeks after Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old terminally ill with brain cancer, ended her life with drugs that were prescribed by her doctor in Oregon, where physician aid-in-dying is legal. By going public with her story in the weeks before her death, Maynard brought national attention to the issue.

Brittany Maynard who ignited aid in dying debate dies 03:37

Burzichelli told he thought Maynard's case helped build momentum for passing the bill. "More people are interested in talking about it because it drew so much attention to the issue," he said.

Under the New Jersey bill, patients who wish to obtain medication to end their life would need two doctors to confirm the terminal diagnosis. Both doctors would also have to confirm that the patient is mentally capable of making independent and rational decisions.

To obtain a lethal prescription, a terminally-ill patient would have to verbally request it from their physician, follow up with a second verbal request 15 days later, and then make an additional request in writing signed by two witnesses.

The doctor would then be permitted to write a prescription for the patient to take if and when they choose.

Opponents of the bill, including the New Jersey Alliance Against Doctor-Assisted Suicide and some disability-rights activists, say it could leave the elderly, disabled or depressed people vulnerable to being pushed towards death.

But others believe it would give patients more control over their final days. Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion & Choices, a non-profit group that offers support for aid in dying, said in a press statement that the bill's passage is "in memory and spirit of Brittany Maynard." The organization partnered with Maynard throughout her journey, and also lobbied for the bill in New Jersey.

"Brittany called on our nation to reform laws so others won't have to move to a Dignity state for comfort and control in their dying. We're honored to carry on in her name," Lee said.

Last spring, Maynard was diagnosed with a lethal type of brain tumor and given six months to live. She and her husband moved from their home in California to Oregon, where the Death with Dignity Act was passed in 1994 and reaffirmed in 1997. Vermont and Washington are the only other two states in the U.S. that have enacted death with dignity laws.

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