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Aid-in-dying bill advances in House

Family Court Judge Elizabeth Whitefield retired in 2016, as shown in this file photo. State legislators this year are weighing an End-of-Life Options law named after her. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Amid tearful debate, New Mexico legislators moved forward Friday with a proposal that would allow terminally ill patients to seek a doctor’s help to end their life.

The committee meeting included testimony from supporters who described watching their loved ones gasp for breath and plead for options to bring about their own death.

Opponents, in turn, urged lawmakers to respect the sanctity of life and ensure no one is pressured into taking their own life.

Following three hours of debate, the House Health and Human Services Committee voted 7-4 to send the bill to the House Judiciary Committee, its last stop before the House floor. The measure passed on a party-line vote with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.

“Each of us deserves autonomy, especially when death is near,” Sandra Penn, a retired family physician, told lawmakers. “It’s a kindness to the patient and family.”

The proposal, House Bill 47, would allow a health care provider to prescribe aid-in-dying medication to a patient only after determining the person had the mental capacity to make the decision, an incurable condition that would otherwise kill them within six months and the ability to self-administer the medicine.

The legislation also prohibits criminal or civil liability – or professional sanctions – for anyone who participates or refuses to participate in medical aid in dying.

A health care provider who doesn’t want to participate would have to refer the individual to another provider.

Opponents said the protections for doctors and nurses who refuse to participate as a matter of conscience aren’t adequate. They also raised questions about whether a patient might be pressured into ending their life.

“I worry about some of the holes in this bill,” said Rep. Stefani Lord, R-Sandia Park.

The proposal is called the Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act, named for a retired judge who had testified in favor of the bill four years ago, before her death. Whitefield, who had cancer, said she didn’t want her family to have to watch her die as she choked on her own fluids – the death she expected.

For more than three hours Friday morning, lawmakers and people testifying through the Zoom webconferencing program shared their own experiences with death.

Rep. Elizabeth Thomson, D-Albuquerque, talked about hearing a dying friend whisper “I’m scared” as she held her.

Others spoke about finding loved ones after a suicide attempt or seeing them suffer.

“While this is difficult to hear, it’s more difficult to live it,” said Rep. Deborah Armstrong, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill.

Her daughter Erin testified in favor of the bill, describing her own survival – and setbacks – amid a protracted terminal illness.

Similar proposals have failed to win legislative approval in recent sessions. But the changing composition of the Legislature over the last four years – Democrats have expanded their majorities – has renewed supporters’ hope of passage.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said this week that he expects the bill to win House approval this year.

Sponsoring the measure are Democratic Reps. Dayan Hochman-Vigil of Albuquerque and Armstrong and Sens. Liz Stefanics of Cerrillos and Bill O’Neill of Albuquerque.

During a Friday media briefing, a spokesman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the governor would likely support the legislation, citing her past work as an advocate for those with high-risk medical conditions.

Dan Boyd of the Journal Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.


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