Dr. Katherine Morris watched in 2009 as her 53-year-old cancer patient swallowed a fatal dose of barbiturates, drifted into unconsciousness and died within three hours.
“It was incredibly challenging when this lovely woman that I had become attached to wanted me to write a prescription to hasten her death,” Morris, now a University of New Mexico Cancer Center oncologist, recalled of her former patient in Portland, Ore.
Morris and Dr. Arrop Mangalik, also a UNM Cancer Center oncologist, filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking legal protection for physicians who prescribe life-ending medications for their terminally ill patients. The lawsuit, filed in 2nd Judicial District Court, asks a judge to clarify a decades-old New Mexico law that makes it a felony to assist a suicide.
“One of the most intimate and personal decisions we will ever make is the decision of how we’re going to approach death,” said Laura Schauer Ives, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and one of two lawyers representing the physicians. “We believe that doctors, not the government, should establish proper medical guidelines for aid in dying as they do with other medical procedures and treatments.”
The lawsuit asks a judge to draw a distinction between assisting suicide and “aid in dying,” in which a physician prescribes a medicine to a mentally competent, terminally ill patient who wants to self-administer the drug to hasten death.
“The purpose of this lawsuit is to ask the New Mexico courts to clarify that a doctor who provides aid in dying is not at risk of punishment by the law,” said Kathryn Tucker, legal director for Compassion & Choices, a Denver-based nonprofit group that advocates for better end-of-life care. Tucker also represents the two physicians.
Aid in dying does not constitute suicide if a patient faces an “unbearable” process of death, and a physician concludes that the patient’s “choice of a peaceful death is among the reasonable medical alternatives,” the lawsuit contends.
New Mexico courts have never defined “suicide” as used in the state’s assisted suicide law, the suit said. The threat of prosecution under that law impairs physicians’ “ability to provide adequate and appropriate medical care to their patients,” the suit contends.
In December 2009, the Montana Supreme Court ruled state law protected doctors from prosecution for helping terminally ill patients die. In Washington and Oregon, voters approved laws allowing doctors to help terminally ill people hasten their deaths.
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal