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End-of-life bill advances in NM House after emotional testimony

SANTA FE – A bill allowing terminally ill New Mexicans to obtain assistance in dying – via prescribed medication – generated emotional debate Friday at the state Capitol, as doctors, religious leaders and cancer patients offered impassioned pleas to lawmakers.

Several legislators also ended up in tears while sharing stories of their own family members, before the end-of-life bill cleared its first assigned House panel on a party-line 4-3 vote.

Democrats on the House Health and Human Services Committee voted in favor of the measure, while Republicans voted against it.

Elizabeth Whitefield, a retired District Court judge from Albuquerque who was one of more than a dozen supporters to testify Friday told committee members she has undergone repeated rounds of chemotherapy to treat several types of cancer and wants to be able to make her own end-of-life decisions.

“Cancer has stolen almost everything from me,” Whitefield said. “Don’t let me die without dignity, I implore you.”

However, critics of the legislation, including the state’s Roman Catholic Church, say it could open the door to improper influence from family members or doctors, while describing the bill as physician-assisted suicide.

“We are rewarding their depression, instead of caring for it … by using death,” said Dauneen Dulce, the executive director of the state Right to Life Committee.

The end-of-life bill is expected to be one of the most fiercely debated issues during the ongoing 60-day legislative session, after the state Supreme Court ruled last year there is no constitutional right to aid in dying.

Officially known as the End of Life Options Act, the bill would allow competent, terminally ill adult patients to obtain prescriptions from doctors for drugs the patients would self-administer.

Death certificates for patients opting to use the program would list their underlying illness as the cause of death, not the prescribed medication.

“This is not suicide,” said Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, who described his father’s struggles and eventual death due to a degenerative nerve disease. “People who would be eligible for this program are going to die.”

Medical aid in dying has already been authorized by law or court ruling in six states – Oregon, Washington, Vermont, California, Montana and Colorado.

In the 18 years after Oregon enacted its landmark 1997 law, a total of 1,545 patients had prescriptions written to hasten their dying and 991 of them actually used the prescription, according to a legislative analysis of the New Mexico bill.

Several backers of the New Mexico legislation spoke Friday of the difficulties of watching a loved one struggle with chronic pain and the loss of bodily functions.

They also said doctors are currently limited in their options to help such patients, as assisting in a suicide in New Mexico is a fourth-degree felony under a 1963 law.

However, critics of the legislation say patients could be coerced by doctors to end their lives if the law is enacted and claimed Hispanics and immigrants could be particularly at risk.

In addition, Rep. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena, said she was concerned the bill might allow young adults with terminal illnesses to make hasty end-of-life decisions.

“I would really hate to see an 18-year-old child be able to do something like this,” she said during Friday’s hearing.

The New Mexico legislation, House Bill 171, is sponsored by Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, and McCamley. After being endorsed Friday, it now moves on to the House Judiciary Committee.