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Senate adopts aid-in-dying measure

Sen. Elizabeth Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, presents a bill to allow medical aid-in-dying Monday at the Roundhouse. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE — Amid tears and tense debate, the state Senate adopted legislation Monday that would allow terminally ill New Mexicans to seek a doctor’s help to end their lives, moving the proposal to the brink of final passage.

The measure, House Bill 47, passed the House last month, but the Senate made amendments to the legislation before Monday’s vote — changes that will have to go back to the House for agreement.

The bill has triggered some of the most emotional debate of the session.

Legislators shared tears Monday as they spoke about the anguish of losing a loved one. The bill also attracted testimony in committee hearings from patients with terminal illnesses and family members who described listening as a relative begged for help ending their life.

“For those who are suffering unbearably at the end of life,” Democratic Sen. Liz Stefanics of Cerrillos said of the proposal Monday, “it provides a measure of control.”

She is one of five Democratic legislators sponsoring the bill.

But opponents questioned whether patients might be pressured or coerced into suicide, perhaps by family members. They also said the state shouldn’t make it easier to end a life.

“This really bothers me,” Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, said as he urged rejection of the bill. “Human life has value, even up to the end.”

Under the proposal, a doctor could issue a prescription for life-ending medication only after determining the person had the mental capacity to make such a decision.

The patient would have to be able to self-administer the medicine, and only patients with an illness likely to kill them within six months would be eligible. A 48-hour waiting period to get the prescription filled would be required, with narrow exceptions.

The bill passed 24-17 after about 2½ hours of debate.

Three Democrats crossed party lines and joined Republicans to vote “no” — Pete Campos of Las Vegas, George Muñoz of Gallup and Benny Shendo of Jemez Pueblo.

Senators amended the proposal before passage. One change strips from the bill a provision calling for death certificates to list the underlying terminal illness as the cause of death, not suicide.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, a Las Cruces Democrat who sponsored the amendment, said New Mexico lawmakers shouldn’t dictate to physicians what to put on a death certificate.

The changes also cut a section of the bill prohibiting insurance companies from trying to influence the patient’s decision. Cervantes said the section wasn’t necessary.

Sponsors of the bill said they were willing to accept the changes.

The law would be known as the Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act, named after a retired judge who testified in favor of the legislation four years ago, just 18 months before her death.

The proposal faced intense opposition from Republican legislators Monday.

Sen. Gregg Schmedes, a Tijeras Republican and physician, said the bill would open the door to euthanasia for people who want to die as a way to save money or avoid being a burden on their family.

The bill would require patients to have a terminal illness, he said, but not that they actually be suffering.

“Altruistic suicide is perfectly legal under this act,” Schmedes said.

Rep. Deborah Armstrong, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, played a key role in passage of the measure. She and her daughter, Erin, testified repeatedly in committee hearings this session about Erin’s cancer treatment and the pain she has faced while fighting to live.

Erin and others, Armstrong said, deserve to have the option of seeking medical help to end their lives when the time comes.

“We all deserve to live life the way we choose, and when facing a fatal prognosis, to also pass away in a peaceful manner,” Armstrong said in a written statement after the vote.

The revised bill will now go back to the House for consideration of the Senate changes. House agreement would send the bill to Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Refusal to agree would likely trigger a bicameral conference committee to work on a compromise.

The bill’s sponsors are Democratic Sens. Stefanics of Cerrillos and Bill O’Neill of Albuquerque and Reps. Armstrong, Dayan Hochman-Vigil and Patricia Roybal Caballero, all of Albuquerque.

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