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Assisted Suicide Case Fails

Assisted Suicide Case Fails

'The New Mexico Supreme Court believes this matter is ripe for legislative action. We call on our state legislature to extend this compassionate care as an option for terminally ill New Mexicans' - ACLU of New Mexico attorney

N.M. Supreme Court Says Physician-assisted Suicide Could Lead to Euthanasia

BY ABQ FREE PRESS STAFF

In a unanimous opinion, the New Mexico Supreme Court upheld the state’s law against assisted suicide.

The case came in the case of a then-terminally ill patient whose doctors sought to indemnify themselves from legal prosecution should their patient, who later recovered, sought their help in dying.

The lawsuit was filed in 2012 by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, and leading patient rights litigator Kathryn Tucker of the Disability Rights Legal Center, on behalf of two Albuquerque oncologists, Dr. Katherine Morris and Dr. Aroop Mangalik, and Aja Riggs, their cancer patient living in Santa Fe.

In 2014, following trial, a Bernaillo County District judge ruled that aid in dying is a fundamental right protected by the New Mexico State Constitution. In August 2015, the New Mexico Court of Appeals overturned the district court ruling in a split decision. Thursday Supreme Court ruling overturned that decision.

The court noted that legalizing physician-assisted sucide could lead to abuse of the elderly by coercion of relatives and it recognized what it called “the legitimate concern that recognizing a right to physician aid in dying will lead to voluntary or involuntary euthanasia because if it is a right, it must be made available to everyone, even when a duly appointed surrogate makes the decision, and even when the patient is unable to self-administer the life-ending medication.”

“This is truly 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,” said ACLU-NM Cooperating Attorney Laura Schauer Ives.

“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. Though we have always held the position that the courts were the most appropriate avenue for deciding this issue, we note that the New Mexico Supreme Court believes this matter is ripe for legislative action. We call on our state legislature to extend this compassionate care as an option for terminally ill New Mexicans.”

The statute that the court upheld makes it a fourth degree felony punishable by 18 months in prison to aid in someone’s suicide. The doctors sought to make law by overturning that statute, which would have led New Mexico to join four states where physician-assisted suicide is legal.

Aid in dying is widely supported in New Mexico, with a 2012 poll showing that 65 percent of New Mexico voters believe it should be available. More recent national polls show that three out of four Americans support access to aid in dying, as do the majority of doctors.

Assisted suicide is legal by statute in Oregon, Washington, Vermont and most recently California, and it is protected by court decision. In Montana, it is legal by case precedent.

Kathryn Tucker of the Disability Rights Legal Center, litigated the New Mexico case.  “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,” she said in a statement released by the ACLU-NM.

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

The unanimous opinion written by Justice Edward Chavez included the vote of District Judge James Hudson, who was designated to participate in the case in the place of retired Justice Richard Bosson, who retired as the case came before the court. His replacement, Judith Nakamura, did not participate in the decision.

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Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.