This column is hopefully going to be the first in a weekly series of legislative updates about important issues that affect the Jewish community and the rest of the world. This legislation is often underreported in the Jewish media and the media at large. The goal is to inform voters of not only the legislation but how your legislators voted on it, how Jewish organizations lobby on behalf of it, and how leading rabbis urge people to respond. We will look at bills from a Torah perspective, a legal perspective, and a political perspective.
For the first few editions of this column, we will focus on New Jersey’s proposed assisted suicide legislation. We will hopefully have more elaborate coverage in this feature to explain this issue and more details on the politics involved in this bill. For now, we will suffice ourselves with the basic details of the bill’s progression.
The Assembly version of the bill is sponsored in the assembly by John Burzichelli, Timothy Eustace, and Joe Danielsen. Both Timothy Eustace and Joe Danielson (New Brunswick) have decent size Jewish community’s in their districts. Timothy Eustace’s district includes such communities as Bergenfield, Fair Lawn, and Paramus. Assemblyman Eustace has had a number of close elections including one where he only won by 56 votes.
The Torah’s position on suicide is very clear: it is forbidden for both Jews and non-Jews. Do to this fact, over 30 rabbis from across the Orthodox Jewish world have issued a psak regarding assisted suicide which demands everyone to urge their legislators to vote against these bills.
This particular bill works so that if a patient gets two separate diagnoses from two separate doctors that they only have 6 months to live, and the patient wants to be prescribed suicide drugs, the doctor has the ability to do so. Once the prescriptions are obtained, the patient can use them at any time, even if no one is around. To make sure the patient did this willingly and is of sound mind, a standardized form must be signed by two witnesses. However, the bill has no method in place to check for any type of fraud. The proposed law also does not have anyone verifying to make sure that the signatures are the witnesses in question. One of the witnesses is allowed to be anyone including a relative or an inheritor. The other witness has to theoretically be unbiased; however, a beneficiary of a life insurance policy or even an agent of the patient’s medical insurance company is considered unbiased for the purposes of this bill. This bill also doesn’t require a psychiatric examination to determine if the patient is mentally fit to make this decision.
On October 6th, the New Jersey Assembly held a hearing on assisted suicide in the Appropriations Committee (a committee which deals with funding issues). This move was very unexpected due to the fact such a bill has always gone through the Health Committee. However, John Burzichelli, the bill’s sponsor, is the chair of the Appropriations Committee.
Further complicating things, three Appropriations Committee members–including the assembly‘s only Orthodox member, Gary Schaer–were substituted and replaced with three other members, all of whom strongly support the bill (including assemblyman Eustace). With these changes, the bill easily passed.
On the first day of Succos, the assembly announced there was going to be a vote on the Thursday of Chol Hamoed, giving the Jewish community very little time to prepare. A few activists not aligned with any mainstream organizations called rabbis, faxed legislators, and organized for the day of the vote despite the limits of time, money, and constraints of Yom Tov. Rabbi Elazar Mayer Teitz from Elizabeth told his representative Annette Quijano that “The bill is vigorously opposed by the entire community, as a matter of Life and Death: assisted suicide is simply bloodshed.”
Not a single mainstream Jewish organization participated in lobbying or protest events on the day of the vote. However, there was a Jewish presence lobbying that day, including the Orthodox Jew who discovered that medical insurance companies are acceptable witnesses.
When the session started, Schaer was chairing the assembly debate on the floor. During the debate, Republican Robert Auth asked that the bill be sent back to committee to be amended because it had many flaws specifically mentioning that the bill allowed the medical insurance companies “most biased of all” to be acceptable witnesses. Louis D. Greenwald (Cherry Hill‘s assembly member) then asked that the bill be voted on right away with medical insurance companies as acceptable witnesses. Thus, they had a procedural vote to see if the bill should be voted on right away with the medical insurance correction not made. In the vote that took place, both parties basically voted on a party line vote with the Democrats including Gary Schaer voting to vote on the bill as is, with the medical insurance companies as acceptable witnesses, and the Republicans voting to send the bill back to committee. Since the democrats are the majority, the democrats won and the vote was now seconds away from taking place.
The vote turned out to be one of the most suspenseful votes in recent memory. In order for the assembly to pass the bill they needed 41 votes. They had 40 votes for a while, climbing up to 41 for a moment, then immediately going down to 40 again before climbing back up to 41 votes again. The moment the bill got the votes again, Gary Schaer closed the vote, allowing the bill to pass by only 1 vote.
What happened was democrat Craig Coughlin, voted for the bill, changed his vote to abstain, then changed it back to voting for the bill. Legislators who represent large Jewish communities were divided, with both Lakewood’s assembly members Sean Kean and David P. Rible, Passaic’s Gary Schaer, and Edison’s Nancy Pinkin (Democrat), voting against the bill. However both Bergenfield’s assemblymen Eustace and Joseph Lagana, both Teaneck’s assembly members Gordon Johnson and Valerie Huttle, both Elizabeth’s assembly members Annette Quijano and Jamel Holley, and Gary Schaer’s co-assembly member from Passaic Marlene Caride all voted for the bill. This was especially tragic considering the bill passed the assembly by one vote last session also.
Thursday, the Senate Health Committee held an open hearing where anyone could have testified. After the hearing, the Committee was to have held a vote on whether or not to advance the bill for the entire senate. Senator Robert Gordon, who represents such Jewish areas as Bergenfield, Fair Lawn, and Paramus in the senate, was seen as one of the 2 possible swing votes on the Committee. This past shabbos, one of Bergen Counties leading rabbis, Rabbi Benjamin Yudin spoke on this issue in his shabbos morning drasha, and put a statement in his shul’s bulletin urging his entire congregation to call or email senator Robert Gordon. Days before the hearing the senate announced that they will no longer be holding the vote, and would just conduct a hearing. However, on Thursday at 11:30 on the day of the vote, they announced that after the hearing they would vote on the bill.
Many of the speakers traveled from far away just to testify against the bill. The hearing started around an hour late due to initially placing the hearing in a room that was clearly to small; this was despite the fact that a much bigger room was available and the being warned early in the morning that the room was clearly to small.
Out of the 9 committee members, only 3 senators (Joseph Vitale, Ronald Rice, and Fred Madden, none of which have Jewish districts) stayed until the end of the hearing, with the rest voting early before the hearing was over to go home early, while there people were still testifying against the bill. The first person to testify on the bill was Stephanie Packer who traveled in a wheelchair all the way from California.
After assisted suicide became law in California her medical insurance company denied her coverage of chemotherapy but “generously” offered to pay for the drugs designed to kill her. The hearing alternated between panels of groups of people speaking for and against the bill for a round of 5 minutes each. Since there were more people speaking against the bill than for it, there were still many people scheduled to speak against the bill after the last panel spoke for the bill. When the last panel speaking against the bill finished, the chair of the committee Joseph Vitale announced that they had to finish the hearing at 5:15 and that the rest of the speakers would now be limited to 1 minute each. There were still many people who had not yet testified against the bill. One speaker brought up the fact that the committee had played games with the scheduling of the vote, which was why many people (including some from Lakewood) did not show up, to which Chairman Vitale responded it makes no difference.
Overall there were 3 Orthodox Jews who testified against the bill, including the last 2 speakers of the day who were slated to have only a minute to speak. The last person to speak aggressively attacked speaker Vitale for all the corruption that happened on a bill, that will kill many New Jerisans. A few other Orthodox Jews wanted to speak but arrived too late to testify against the bill. However, neither lobbyist Avi Schnall from Agudah, or Josh Pruzansky from the O.U. Both Senator Robert Gordon, and Richard Codey (Livingston, Maplewood, West Orange) voted in favor of the bill which passed with only 1 vote. Now the bill moves to the entire senate floor which is expected to vote on November 14th. If anyone wants to call the senator to vote against the bill, as many rabbis have declared, they should feel obligated to do so. Just click on the link by the town, or city you live in.
If anyone wants to call possible swing senators with large Jewish constituencies, here is their contact infomation.
possible swing votes in the senate who represent Jewish districts, are
Republician Jennifer Beck (Deal, Long Branch) (732) 933-1591
Democrat Patrick Diegnan (Edison, Highland Park) (908) 757-1677
Democrat Paul A. Sarlo (Passaic) (201) 804-8118
Democrat Loretta Weinberg (Englewood, Fort Lee, Teaneck, Tenafly) (201) 928-0100
Democrat Robert Gordon (Bergenfield, Fair Lawn, Paramus) (201) 703-9779 (even though he voted for the bill it’s possible he will change his vote for the floor vote, because of his personal political calculations)