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2 doctors challenge New Mexico’s decades-old ‘right to die’ law

By Russell Contreras
The Republic
March 15, 2012

Two physicians filed a challenge Thursday against a decades-old New Mexico law that prohibits doctors from helping terminally ill patients die.

With supporters holding signs in Spanish and English, cancer doctors Katherine Morris and Aroop Mangalik filed their lawsuit with their attorneys in state district court in Albuquerque.

According to the lawsuit, the doctors, both who work at the University of New Mexico Health Science Center, seek to be allowed to prescribe medication to terminally-ill patients who want to end their lives.

“This is an issue that does not get talked about much in our society,” said Morris, who recently moved to New Mexico from Oregon, where doctors can legally help terminally-ill patients end their lives. “And when it does, it’s generally in sound bites. As a society, our persistent refusal to face death is hurting us and causing suffering.”

Currently, New Mexico law states that “whoever commits assisting suicide is guilty of a fourth degree felony.” However, Compassion & Choices legal director Kathryn Tucker said the lawsuit asks the court to clarify state law to allow doctors to give patients the option of ending their lives.

Opponents call the practice “physician-assisted suicide,” while supporters speak of “death with dignity” or “end-of-life choices.”

Tucker said lawyers intend to argue that the state law does not legally prohibit doctors from ending the lives of terminally ill patients. The lawsuit claims the law against assisted suicide “does not reference a physician providing aid in dying to a terminally-ill and mentally-competent person.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the Denver-based group Compassion & Choices are helping with the lawsuit. Both groups say they expect the battle to end up in New Mexico Supreme Court.

Phil Sisneros, a spokesman for New Mexico Attorney General Gary King, said he could not comment since the attorney general’s office has not had an opportunity to review the lawsuit.

If New Mexico physicians are allowed to assist terminally-ill patients in ending their lives, doctors say they would prescribe medication that would be taken by patients on their own timetable.

Voters in Oregon and Washington have passed “right to die” laws, while Montana’s Supreme Court ruled that the practice of physicians helping terminally-ill patients end their lives could be considered part of medical treatments.

But most other states have adopted laws that call for prison time for those found guilty of the practice.

Nearly 600 terminally-ill patients in Oregon have opted to end their lives since the state law went into effect in 1998, according to state numbers.

In Washington, a total of 135 patents took the option in 2009 and 2010, the state’s latest numbers show.

Mangalik said around a third of terminally-ill patients who were prescribed medication to end their lives opted not to take it and instead died of natural causes. “Patients just wanted the option,” he said. “They wanted to feel as if they are in control.”