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House passes aid-in-dying legislation

Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, presents a bill she is co-sponsoring to allow medical aid in dying. She participated through a video link as part of new rules intended to limit the transmission of COVID-19. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — For a few hours Friday night, New Mexico legislators shared stories about watching their loved ones die.

In a debate on the House floor, Democratic Rep. Deborah Armstrong of Albuquerque walked her colleagues through the final days of life of her father in law and, later, a close friend.

Her daughter, Erin, now faces an inoperable brain tumor.

“This is difficult,” Armstrong said of the debate. But “it’s far more difficult to live it than it is to hear about it or talk about it.”

The tearful debate culminated in 39-27 vote to endorse a proposal that would allow terminally ill patients to seek a doctor’s help to end their life — the first time a medical aid-in-dying bill has passed a chamber of the state Legislature. The legislation, House Bill 47, now heads to the Senate.

Opponents raised a variety of objections, such as whether terminally ill patients might feel pressure from their family to take the lethal drugs.

Rep. Ryan Lane, R-Aztec, warned about the possibility of a “life-ending mistake,” especially if a child discovered the medicine.

“I think the government has an interest in seeing its citizens survive,” Lane said. “I think there are a lot of practical concerns with this particular bill.”

Rep. James Strickler, R-Farmington, suggested no one should give up their life. He choked up as he spoke about praying as a teenager for his dad to survive an illness.

He made a miraculous recovery.

“It was a selfish prayer,” Strickler said, “but it worked.”

Requirements

The proposed End-of-Life Options Act outlines a host of steps before health care providers could prescribe aid-in-dying medication to a patient.

They would have to determine the person had the mental capacity to make the decision, an incurable condition expected to kill them within six months and the ability to self-administer the medicine.

The patient would have to put the request in writing, with the signing witnessed by two people, at least one of whom was unrelated to the patient.

A 48-hour wait would be required before the prescription is filled. For many patients, Armstrong said, they never take the medicine, but having it on hand is a comfort.

The legislation would prohibit criminal or civil liability, professional sanctions or disciplinary action if a health care provider participates or refuses to participate.

A practitioner who doesn’t want to participate, however, would have to refer the individual to someone else.

The bill will now head to the New Mexico Senate, which narrowly rejected a medical aid-in-dying bill four years ago. But the composition of the Senate has changed substantially since then, with 11 of the 42 senators new to the body this year.

Nine states have similar laws.

Emotional stories

In a three-hour debate Friday, supporters and opponents alike shared personal stories about death.

Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, D-Albuquerque, spoke about leaving college to take care of her mother in her final months. Through tears, Hochman-Vigil explained how her mom, at one point, had asked for help ending her life.

“It was a request I couldn’t honor,” Hochman-Vigil said, “for obvious reasons.”

Medical aid in dying, she said, is “about autonomy and compassion and the ability to live one’s life and end one’s life the way they choose.”

Armstrong and Hochman-Vigil are co-sponsors of House Bill 47.

It passed largely along party lines, with Democrats in support and Republicans opposed. Seven Democrats crossed party lines and voted “no,” while one Republican, Kelly Fajardo of Los Lunas, voted in favor.

The proposed law would be named after Elizabeth Whitefield, who testified four years ago in favor of similar legislation. Stricken by cancer and her voice barely a whisper, she had urged lawmakers to give her an option to avoid her family having “to watch me slowly die.”

Whitefield, a retired judge, died 18 months after her testimony.


Albuquerque Journal seeks stories of our community's pandemic loss

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