STATE — By a 46 to 38 percent margin, New Jersey voters support a bill that would allow physician-assisted suicide in New Jersey, according to the most recent results from Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind poll. Garden State Democrats and Republicans are about equally likely to support the measure, and the big split among voters seems to be based on religious grounds.
Despite the national media attention the bill has received, most New Jersey residents say that they haven’t heard much about it: 55 percent say that they haven’t heard or read anything about it at all. This didn’t stop respondents from having an opinion on the bill, though: only 15 percent said that they didn’t know how they felt about it.
“Most voters simply don’t know much about the bill,” said Dan Cassino, professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson and an analyst for the poll. “And that means that there’s still plenty of room for people on either side of the bill to change people’s minds.”
Much of the opposition to the bill comes from people who attend church services regularly. About 1 in 3 New Jersey voters (32%) say that they attend religious services at least every week, and only 23 percent of them support the measure. A similar number of voters (33%) in the state go to services only for special occasions, or never: 67 percent of them support the measure. In contrast, support was evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Half of Democrats (52 percent) support the measure, along with 45 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of independents.
“This is an issue that hasn’t really been politicized, at least not in New Jersey,” said Cassino. “People can’t generally turn to political leaders for advice on how to feel about it, so they’re relying on religious views instead.”
Interestingly, age does not seem to play a role in determining how people feel about the bill. About half (49 percent) of residents under the age of 60 say that they support the measure, while 40 percent of voters over 60 do. However, that difference can largely be accounted for by the increased religious participation of older New Jersey residents.
“You might think that older voters would oppose the measure,” said Cassino. “But for every older person who is worried about having the plug pulled on them prematurely, there’s another who wants more control over their end of life decision-making.”
Introduced by Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester), the bill would allow patients with less than six months to live to request a prescription for fatal medications. The patient would have to request the drugs three times, including once in writing, and have their request approved by two different doctors. Patients with any psychiatric issues would not be able to get a prescription, and once the drugs were prescribed, the patient would be required to administer the fatal dose to themselves.
Hospitals and other health care providers could disallow their doctors from participating in the program. Three other states – Oregon, Washington and Montana – currently allow terminally ill patients to receive fatal doses of medication. Massachusetts voted last month on a ballot issue that would have allowed it, but the voters decided against it, 49 percent to 51 percent. The New Jersey bill was introduced at the end of September, and has yet to be scheduled for a vote.
“The restrictions placed on the New Jersey version of the bill render it mostly symbolic,” said Cassino. “But both sides – perhaps correctly – see it as the opening fight in a much bigger war over what they see as patient rights and the sanctity of life.”
The Fairleigh Dickinson University poll of 433 registered voters statewide was conducted by telephone using both landlines and cell phones from October 26 through October 29, 2012, and has a margin of error of +/-4.7 percentage points.