SANTA FE — “I’m actually going to take a pen and write a prescription for something that will end someone’s life.”
That was Katherine Morris, an oncologist and surgeon, facing a documentary filmmaker’s camera and summing up her role in helping an Oregon woman with terminal cancer give herself a lethal dose of barbiturates.
The film, a Sundance Film Festival winner last year, is called “How To Die in Oregon” and it follows Cody Curtis, a 54-year-old woman with advanced liver cancer, as she prepares for and then carries out what is commonly, but inaccurately, called “physician-assisted suicide.”
Morris is at UNM’s Cancer Center now, and she is one of two New Mexico oncologists bringing a lawsuit that asks the court to make a distinction between “assisting suicide,” which is a felony in New Mexico, and a physician “aiding in dying,” which is doing just what Morris did twice in Oregon — prescribing a lethal dose of medicine, usually Seconal pills, to mentally competent patients who are terminally ill and want to choose their time to die.
When I asked Morris to tell me what it was like for a doctor who has devoted her career to healing and taken an oath to “do no harm” to decide that hastening death is a reasonable medical alternative, she first made it clear that she was speaking only as an individual and not in any way connected to or representing UNM.
And then she told me it was agonizing.
“It was a really hard decision,” she said. “One of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It took a lot of soul-searching.”
If New Mexico were to remove the potential for criminal liability, Morris predicted, there would be no rush to the pharmacy to fill Seconal prescriptions here. In Oregon, there have been only about 600 cases of terminally ill patients choosing to hasten their deaths in the 14 years it has been legal.
“It’s a rare event,” she said. And, in the case of Curtis, the Oregon woman whose death Morris helped to hasten, it was a peaceful end. “Beautiful and moving,” said Morris, who was with Curtis when she died.
That is the physicians’ side of the discussion. The patient’s face on this lawsuit belongs to Aja Riggs, a 48-year-old Santa Fean who has advanced uterine cancer.
Riggs was having one of her frequent exhausted days when I sat down with her in a park in Santa Fe last week to talk about her illness and, theoretically at least, her death. She is a thoughtful, quiet woman who is willing to delve into some of life’s most intimate issues in the effort to give New Mexicans additional choice in how they approach the ends of their lives.
Riggs, who runs her own personal organizing business, had been diagnosed with uterine cancer last fall and had already had surgery, chemotherapy and radiation when she heard a radio report about the lawsuit. She realized it spoke directly to the situation she found herself in and that she wanted to be involved in the doctor’s quest.
“What was the deepest motivation for me was that one of the many things I had thought about throughout this process was, if the cancer’s going to be responsible for my death, what might that look like? And what kind of choices can I have in that dying process?”
She wanted to have the option of deciding when the suffering was too much and interceding to end her life. Riggs was aware that in some states it was legal for a doctor to help patients end their lives, but she knew it could be interpreted as illegally assisting a suicide under New Mexico’s suicide law. That meant she kept her thoughts to herself.
“I was afraid to talk to the people who are closest to me about it, and I was afraid to talk to my doctor about it,” Riggs told me. “I thought that if it came to choosing that route for myself and it’s illegal, I don’t want to implicate anyone else in that. The isolation that creates, it’s just wrong.”
Riggs is still in active treatment for her cancer and still hoping for a cure, although she says “it’s less likely that will happen.” End-of-life options are still theoretical, but she gives her death serious thought.
“I want to have the option of creating a more peaceful death,” she said, “and that means a lot of things. Less pain, less suffering, less drawn-out pain and suffering.”
That, she hopes, would also create more peace of mind for the people who would be with her as she nears her end.
I asked her how much she thinks about dying and what the experience might be like.
“Spending a lot of time thinking about how my death might go? I don’t really do that,” she said. “I do know that I want to have the choice of being able to not go through tremendous pain and suffering. I know I’d rather die at home than in the hospital, not hooked up to medical devices. (But) on an everyday basis, I’m not hanging around thinking about it.”
She spends more time living — kayaking, spending time with friends, exploring and finding the joy in natural places.
Given the choice between living and dying, it’s obvious which one Riggs would choose, which brings us to the unfortunate term “assisted suicide.”
Suicide implies an active choice between life and death, Riggs said, while for the terminally ill that choice has already been made by their disease. “Aid in dying” is a more accurate description.
“It is not suicide. It’s not a choice between living and dying,” Riggs said. “If you’re terminally ill, it’s a choice in what kind of death you have.”
If New Mexico — either through a judge’s ruling on the current lawsuit or lawmakers amending our suicide statute — were to lift possible criminal penalties for physicians prescribing to terminally ill patients, it wouldn’t force anyone to take the option and it wouldn’t allow anyone other than a terminally patient to decide when it was time to go.
As I thanked Riggs for being so open to my questions about such personal issues, she said she wanted to stress that she wasn’t presuming anyone else in her situation should want the same thing.
“It’s such a personal thing — how we live and how we die are just incredibly individual and personal things,” Riggs said. “And I don’t know what I’ll do for sure at the very end. There’s no way I could pretend to know what’s best for me or other people, other than having the choice.”
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or email@example.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal