Religious liberty and assisted suicide in New Jersey

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Thursday the 29th of August, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up, doctor-assisted suicide.

Back in April, New Jersey became the ninth state where it’s legal for doctors to prescribe drugs to end someone’s life. It’s also legal in the District of Columbia. New Jersey’s law went into effect this month. But before doctors could dispense the first deadly prescription, a judge put the law on hold.

REICHARD: The doctor who filed the suit is also an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. He says the law violates his constitutionally protected religious liberty. People who oppose physician-assisted suicide support his effort. 

But they don’t think it will ultimately succeed.

Here’s WORLD Radio’s Leigh Jones.

LEIGH JONES, REPORTER: Dr. Yosef Glassman specializes in geriatrics. His elderly patients are among those most likely to consider physician-assisted suicide. Under New Jersey’s Medical Aid in Dying Act, Dr. Glassman isn’t required to prescribe lethal drugs. But he could be forced to transfer his patients’ records to a doctor who would.

And that, Dr. Glassman says, violates his First Amendment right to practice his faith, which maintains human life is sacred.

But that’s not why a state judge put the law on hold.

MARKER: In the New Jersey law it was very clear that there were to be specific rules that had been promulgated before the bill was to go into effect and that did not happen.

Rita Marker heads the Patients Rights Council. She says the judge halted the law because the state agencies that were supposed to draft regulations hadn’t done their job.

Democratic Governor Phil Murphy has vowed to fight the lawsuit. And clearing up the regulation problem could be a relatively quick fix.

That would leave Glassman’s religious liberty complaint to litigate, but even supporters don’t think it will succeed in stopping physician-assisted suicide in New Jersey.

Dr. David Stevens heads the Christian Medical and Dental Associations.

STEVENS: The law is very clear that patient’s records belong to the patient, not to the doctor, and so they have a right to access them and to transfer them to another physician.

Stevens says Glassman would have had a stronger case if New Jersey lawmakers had included a referral provision in the bill. That would have forced doctors who object to send patients somewhere else for their life-ending prescriptions. Regulators in Vermont tried that in 2013, but Christian doctors successfully fought to overturn that interpretation of the law.

No states since then have tried to adopt a referral provision, but Stevens says that’s the ultimate goal for assisted-suicide advocates.

STEVENS: It’s already happening in Canada… There’s also already a mandatory referral, which requires participation and pressure on healthcare professionals to participate.

Rita Marker agrees.

MARKER: We have to recognize that those who favor this want to make it available to eventually anyone at any time for any reason.

In May, President Trump announced a new rule that protects healthcare workers from being forced to participate in procedures that violate their religious beliefs. It covers things like abortion, gender reassignment treatments, and assisted suicide. But a slew of activist groups and Democratic-led states have filed suit to block it.

They claim it amounts to unconstitutional discrimination against patients seeking such procedures. And that argument boils down to how you define things like assisted suicide in the first place.

MARKER: What they’re trying to do now is to transform this into just a regular medical treatment. And if you think about it, in the 10 jurisdictions where this is now legal, it is considered a medical treatment.

If that definition takes hold, David Stevens says it won’t be long before Christian doctors face pressure to personally provide that treatment.

Two out of five Christian healthcare providers say they have already felt pressure to compromise their deeply held beliefs in other areas of medicine. And a whopping 95 percent of them say they’ll quit before they are forced to do something they know is wrong.

STEVENS: So, we’re fighting for right of conscience because some would like to push all Christian healthcare professionals out of healthcare. Uh, so they have that playing field all to themselves for the things that they’re pushing.

Redefining physician-assisted suicide as a medical treatment also has deadly implications for patients. Insurance companies and healthcare providers will begin to evaluate lethal drugs next to life-extending treatments that are much more expensive.

STEVENS: The biggest issue in this country is medicine. Healthcare costs too much. And the cheapest form of healthcare at the end of life is a handful of lethal pills. And that should make all of us opposed to physician-assisted suicide because we’re doing away with those who have the least autonomy at one of the most difficult times in their life and calling it compassion and choice, which it’s not.

Rita Marker, who does pro-bono legal work for poor clients, says calling assisted suicide a choice may be the biggest misnomer of all.

MARKER: So for those who are comfortably well off, it might be an option for them, but it could be the only medical treatment that my clients can afford and it hits those who are the least able to pay for things the hardest, and it really hurts minorities.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Leigh Jones.

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File) In this Aug. 14, 2019 file photo, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy speaks to reporters in Newark, N.J. The state can move ahead with a new law allowing terminally ill patients to seek life-ending drugs, a state appeals court ruled Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019 overturning a lower court’s temporary hold on the law. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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