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Aid-in-dying legislation heads to full Senate

In this Feb. 19 file photo, Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, presents the proposed End-of-Life Options Act remotely as part of new rules to limit the spread of COVID-19. The measure passed a key Senate committee Sunday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers on Sunday moved closer than ever to passage of a bill that would allow terminally ill patients to seek medical aid to end their lives.

The legislation, House Bill 47, cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 5-3 vote and heads next to the Senate floor.

It won House approval last month, the first time medical aid-in-dying legislation has ever passed a chamber of the state Legislature.

In Sunday’s hearing, Rep. Deborah Armstrong, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, highlighted her daughter Erin’s own story as she urged lawmakers to pass the bill. Erin has an inoperable brain tumor, she said, and has faced excruciating pain at times while undergoing treatment.

“She has made all her own health care decisions,” Armstrong said. “At the end of her life, she deserves the ability to make that decision again.”

The proposal ran into a barrage of legal questions from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Cervantes, an attorney and Democrat from Las Cruces. He supported moving the bill forward but said he may propose amendments when the full Senate takes up the measure.

His questions touched on a variety of sections of the proposal, including a provision calling for death certificates to list the underlying terminal illness as the cause of death, not suicide.

“I don’t think that’s honest,” Cervantes said.

But the committee made no changes to the measure Sunday. If the Senate revises the measure, the House will have to agree to the amendments before final approval, or the two chambers could send the legislation to a bicameral conference committee in hopes of reaching agreement.

The legislation passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, an Albuquerque Democrat and member of the committee, didn’t participate in the hearing.

Ivey-Soto, a lawyer known for going through bills line by line to suggest changes, announced that he had been asked by legislative leaders not to perform his “senatorial duties” on House bills. He left the meeting.

During the hearing, opponents said elderly patients or people with disabilities might be especially vulnerable to pressure or coercion to end their lives. Others said the bill sends a message that some lives aren’t worth living or put too much of a burden on caregivers.

Jay Santillanes, a lobbyist for the Navajo Nation president’s office, urged legislators to reject the bill. The Navajo Nation believes all life is sacred, he said, and the bill would “have a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged communities like ours.”

The proposal is called the Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act, named after a retired judge who testified in favor of the bill four years ago, pleading for the right to end her life on her own terms. She died 18 months later.

The proposal would require the patient to self-administer the life-ending medicine. Health care providers could prescribe the medication to a patient only after determining the person had the mental capacity to make the decision and that they suffered from a terminal illness expected to kill them within six months.

The patient would have to put the request in writing. Two witnesses – at least one of whom couldn’t be related to the patient – would be required for the signing.

In most cases, a 48-hour wait would be required before the prescription could be filled.

In addition to Armstrong, the bill’s sponsors are Democratic Sens. Liz Stefanics of Cerrillos and Bill O’Neill of Albuquerque and Reps. Dayan Hochman-Vigil and Patricia Roybal Caballero, also of Albuquerque.

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