SANTA FE – A bill that would allow New Mexicans diagnosed with a terminal illness to seek a physician’s help to end their lives cleared its first legislative hurdle Monday after more than three hours of debate.
Similar “aid-in-dying” legislation has prompted moral, religious and legal questions in past years and never received final approval.
The bill debated Monday, House Bill 90, prompted some of the same types of questions but ultimately advanced on a party-line vote.
Members of the House Health and Human Services Committee voted 4-3 to approve the legislation, with majority Democrats voting in favor and Republicans in opposition.
To Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, one of the bill’s sponsors, the proposal strikes close to home.
Armstrong testified that her daughter, Erin Armstrong, was recently diagnosed with two brain tumors.
“Everyone should have the option of how they’re going to die,” said Armstrong, who said she also recently lost a friend to a terminal illness.
Under current state law, it is illegal for a doctor to prescribe medication that might help a patient to end his or her life.
The bill proposed in the House – along with a companion bill in the Senate – would sanction that practice, but only under limited circumstances.
For instance, the health care provider would have to determine the patient actually had a terminal illness, had not been pressured into making the decision and had the mental capacity to request such a prescription.
In addition, patients would be required to administer the prescription themselves and would have to wait at least two days before filling the prescription.
Despite those safeguards, some lawmakers said they still see trouble spots.
“I have a concern that two days is not long enough,” said Rep. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena, who raised the prospect of 18-year olds with diabetes seeking to end their lives under the law.
Nationally, six other states already have aid-in-dying laws on their books, though details vary by state. Oregon was the first state to enact such a law, and 144 people died using legal medication in that state in 2017, according to an analysis of the New Mexico bill.
This year’s measure is officially called the Elizabeth Whitefield End of Life Options Act, in honor of a longtime Albuquerque family law judge who advocated for similar legislation in 2017 and died last August.
House Bill 90 now goes to the House Judiciary Committee.