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New Mexico assisted suicide law affirmed

Aja Riggs of Santa Fe, at a news conference in October at the state Supreme Court Building. Riggs, a cancer patient, is a plaintiff challenging state law that would not allow medical help for patient suicide. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Aja Riggs of Santa Fe, at a news conference in October at the state Supreme Court Building. Riggs, a cancer patient, is a plaintiff challenging state law that would not allow medical help for patient suicide. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico’s highest court Thursday said there is no fundamental or even important right under the state Constitution for a terminally ill patient to have assistance from a physician to end pain and choose the time of one’s own death.

In its ruling, a unanimous New Mexico Supreme Court bucked a growing movement of states allowing the practice, called aid in dying, by upholding New Mexico’s Assisted Suicide Act.

Two University of New Mexico Hospital oncologists, later joined by a terminal cancer patient, had challenged the law out of fear they could be criminally prosecuted if they prescribed drugs that could be used to ease pain but also end life.

When the case was argued last fall, three states had statutes or court opinions allowing the practice, and California joined the list during the pendency of the case.

“It is not easy to define who would qualify to be a terminally ill patient, or what would be the criteria for assuring a patient is competent to make an end-of-life decision, or what medical practices are acceptable to aid a patient in dying, or what constitutes a safe medication,” says the opinion by Justice Edward Chávez. “These concerns require robust debate in the legislative and executive branches of government.”

He was joined by Justices Barbara Vigil, Petra Jimenez Maes and Chief Justice Charles Daniels. Fifth Judicial District Judge James Hudson of Roswell was designated to hear the case because Justice Richard Bosson had announced his retirement when the case was submitted.

The court said arguments by Drs. Katherine Morris and Aroop Mangalik and Santa Fe resident Aja Riggs, whose terminal cancer is now in remission, made “a compelling argument” distinguishing aid in dying from suicide. But the court said its analysis was bound by the law, which broadly defines suicide as “the taking of one’s own life” and lacks the clinical and emotional distinctions used by doctors, psychologists and other health professionals for aid in dying.

Plaintiffs also challenged the law based on New Mexico public policy that favors patient autonomy in decision-making. But the high court said the health care decisions act was adopted after the practice of aid in dying entered the public debate and the Legislature was aware of it.

Although the law was challenged under the state constitution, the New Mexico justices in making their decision considered the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1997 ruling in a case from Washington state that looked at physician assistance to terminally ill patients seeking to end their lives. In that case, Washington v. Glucksberg, the constitutionality of Washington’s assisted suicide law was affirmed.

The first ruling in the case came after a two-day trial before 2nd Judicial District Judge Nan Nash at which the state presented no evidence. In a written ruling, Nash said, “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.” The Court of Appeals reversed her in a 2-1 decision with three separate opinions.

By the time the Supreme Court decided to review it, medical, psychological, disability and religious organizations weighed in with friend-of-the-court briefs, including one filed on behalf of Archbishop John Wester of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe opposing aid in dying.

Catherine G. Foster, an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom who represented legislators urging the court to uphold the Court of Appeals and find no right to aid in dying, called the Supreme Court decision “a win for all New Mexicans.

“Physician-assisted suicide threatens all people and turns the focus from treatment to terminality and death,” said Foster, executive director of Euthanasia Prevention Coalition USA. “Simply put, diagnoses and prognoses aren’t foolproof, and no law can protect our weakest citizens, particularly the elder and disabled communities, from the coercion and abuse that go hand-in-hand with (it).”

ACLU-NM Cooperating Attorney Laura Schauer Ives, in contrast, called it “truly tragic news for the terminally ill New Mexicans.

“From the very beginning this case has been about giving people more options and control at the end of life, and we are deeply disappointed that the courts have decided against allowing doctors to care for their patients in this way,” she said.

Aid in dying as a public issue promises not to go gently into that good night.

Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces, said Thursday he has formed a working group to look at legislation to allow the practice and expects to have a bill ready for the January 60-day session.

“We started the process of working on a bill, but refrained from doing anything concrete until the Supreme Court ruled,” he said. “People with a terminal disease shouldn’t have to live in pain.”