Aid-in-dying law takes effect in New Mexico

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – For advocates of legislation allowing terminally ill New Mexicans to end their own lives with the help of prescribed medication, Friday has been a long time coming.

But, for critics, it marks the first step down a path they’d long tried to block.

A new aid-in-dying law, which drew emotional debate at the Roundhouse in recent years before finally winning approval this year, is one of nearly 70 new laws set to take effect Friday.

In preparation for the bill’s effective date, a new nonprofit group has been created to give information to families with ailing loved ones, and raise awareness of the new law among hospitals, doctors and hospice care providers.

Barak Wolff, board chairman for End of Life Options New Mexico, said the law was carefully tailored to provide safeguards, including an opt-out provision for physicians with moral objections.

“This isn’t being foisted on anybody,” Wolff said Thursday. “It is a rigorous process to be qualified, as it should be.”

He also said less than 0.5% of total deaths in other states with similar laws in place – including Oregon and Washington – stem from patients taking end-of-life medication.

“It really is used by very few, ultimately,” Wolff said, adding many who seek medication to end their lives don’t ultimately end up taking it for various reasons.

Under New Mexico’s new law, a doctor can issue a prescription for life-ending medication only after determining the patient seeking it has the mental capacity to make such a decision.

In addition, patients have to be able to self-administer the medicine and only those deemed likely to die within six months will be able to obtain it. There will also be a 48-hour waiting period to get the prescription filled, with narrow exceptions.

Until Friday, it had been illegal for New Mexico medical practitioners to issue prescriptions for medication that patients could take to end their own lives.

The law was originally named after Elizabeth Whitefield, a retired judge who died in 2018 of cancer after imploring legislators to pass such a measure.

However, the new law also drew emotional opposition, including from Archbishop John Wester and other top state Roman Catholic officials.

Sen. Gregg Schmedes, a Tijeras Republican and physician, expressed concern Thursday that the new law could open the door to euthanasia for sick people who want to avoid being a burden on their family.

He also said the law could allow doctors or insurance companies to broach the subject of aid-in-dying medication with patients, while also predicting it could be loosened in future years to expand the type of patients eligible to qualify.

“I think this is something that is primarily going to be utilized by the secular community in cities,” Schmedes told the Journal. “It’s a law for rich people who want to control the end of their lives.”

But Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who signed the bill in April, described it as a long overdue change that would allow terminally ill New Mexicans to avoid significant pain and suffering at the end of their lives.

“New Mexicans deserve every single dignity we as a state and as a community can provide them,” the Democratic governor said after signing the bill. “Dignity in dying – making the clear-eyed choice to prevent suffering at the end of a terminal illness – is self-evidently a humane policy.”

Meanwhile, the aid-in-dying legislation is one of at least 68 bills approved during this year’s 60-day legislative session that will take effect Friday.

Under the state Constitution, bills approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor take effect 90 days after a legislative session ends, unless they specify a different effective date.

Nearly 40 additional bills will take effect July 1, which is the start of the state’s new fiscal year.

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