Doctor-Assisted Suicide Suffers a Blow in New Mexico

The state Supreme Court has ruled that terminally ill New Mexicans do not have a constitutionally protected right to enlist a doctor's help to end their lives.

By Phaedra Haywood

The state Supreme Court has ruled that terminally ill New Mexicans do not have a constitutionally protected right to enlist a doctor's help to end their lives.

Justice Edward L. Chavez wrote in his opinion, released Thursday, that the court recognized the "magnitude and importance of the very personal desire of a terminally ill patient to decide how to safely and peacefully exit a painful and debilitating life." He also conceded that the state "does not have an interest in preserving a painful and debilitating life that will end imminently."

But, he wrote, "end-of-life decisions are inherently fraught with the potential for abuse."

If the court found patients have a right to physician aid in dying, he said, more questions would emerge about what defines an illness as terminal and how to ensure a patient makes an informed and independent decision. "Regulation in this area is essential," he said, "given that if a patient carries out his or her end-of-life decision it cannot be reversed, even it if turns out that the patient did not make the decision of his or her own free will."

The case before the Supreme Court was first filed in 2012 by Aja Riggs, a Santa Fe woman who had been diagnosed with aggressive uterine cancer and sought a state District Court ruling that would allow doctors to help mentally competent, terminally ill adults end their lives without fear of criminal prosecution.

She and her doctors -- who were represented by the lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union -- argued that a 1963 state law prohibiting "physician-assisted suicide" was unconstitutional.

District Judge Nan Nash ruled in Riggs' favor in 2014, but then-state Attorney General Gary King, at the urging of then-Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan, appealed the ruling to the New Mexico Court of Appeals, which decided 3-2 in 2015 to reject Nash's ruling.

The state Supreme Court's decision upholds the appeals court's ruling.

Riggs, whose cancer has since gone into remission, said Thursday she was "very disappointed" with the court's decision.

"I absolutely still believe it's something that people should have a right to," she said in a phone interview Thursday. "Although I have managed to survive to see this decision, which was not necessarily expected, all of my time learning about this has only increased by feelings about how important it is for people who are terminally ill to have this option available, in addition to other options that are now legal and available."

The ACLU called the opinion "tragic news for the terminally ill New Mexicans who now face the prospect of a difficult death without the option of physician aid in dying."

Riggs and the ACLU lawyers said they'll now look to the state Legislature to change state law to allow physician-assisted death.

"The choice of a dying patient for a peaceful death through aid in dying has been a safe, compassionate, and widely-accepted medical practice for almost twenty years now," patient rights litigator Kathryn Tucker, who represented Riggs in the case, said in a written statement.

"Though this ruling is a setback for aid in dying in New Mexico," she said, "the tide of public support is clearly in favor of making this compassionate care available to terminally ill patients. A strong majority of New Mexicans support aid in dying, and we are confident that they will ultimately prevail."

The Supreme Court's decision was unanimous, but Justice Judith Nakamura did not participate in the case because it was presented for oral arguments before she took the bench. District Judge James M. Hudson was designated to fill the place of the fifth justice in the case.

Riggs said Thursday she hopes people will continue talking about the issue.

"I just hope that we as a state continue the conversation about death and dying in an open and honest and compassionate way," she said, "and that we can work toward people having as much choice and control at the end of their lives as possible."

(c)2016 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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