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Judge: Docs can prescribe meds for aid in dying

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — State law provides a fundamental right to a terminally ill, competent patient to choose a physician’s aid in getting prescription medications that will allow a peaceful death, a state judge ruled Monday in a seminal case.

Second Judicial District Judge Nan Nash said Drs. Katherine Morris and Aroop Mangalik, both oncologists at the University of New Mexico Hospital, could not be prosecuted under the state’s Assisted Suicide Statute, which is defined as the act of “deliberately aiding another in the taking of his own life.”

The practice recognizes that the patient is dying from his or her underlying disease and allows the patient to have medication, usually sedatives, that may be taken at a time of the patient’s choosing to achieve a peaceful death. Patients who most often choose the option are those dying of cancer.

Nash found that the right exists under the New Mexico Constitution, which prohibits the state from depriving a person of life, liberty or property without due process.

“This court cannot envision a right more fundamental, more private or more integral to the liberty, safety and happiness of a New Mexican than the right of a competent, terminally ill patient to choose aid in dying,” Nash wrote in the opinion. “If decisions made the shadow of one’s imminent death regarding how they and their loved ones will face that death are not fundamental and at the core of these constitutional guarantees, then what decisions are?”

Nash’s ruling comes after a two-day bench trial in December that included testimony from practitioners in other states where aid in dying is legally available.

Morris and Mangalik both have previously practiced in Oregon, which has two decades of experience with aid in dying. Morris testified about her previous experience there, and plaintiff Aja Riggs of Santa Fe, who has uterine cancer, testified about her desire to have peace of mind about her options.

Oregon, Washington and Vermont have explicitly authorized the practice. Montana made it legal after a decision by its state supreme court. And in Hawaii, there is no criminal prosecution for assisted suicide.

New Mexico’s statute was enacted in 1963, and medical practice, treatment and ethics “have changed radically over the past 50 years,” her opinion noted.

State courts and the Legislature have shown a desire to respect a terminally ill patient’s end-of-life choices since that time, her ruling says.

“Aid in dying falls within the medical ambit of end of life choices available to a terminally ill patient,” it says.