End-of-Life Choice, Palliative Care and Counseling

Landmark Trial Could Establish Physician Aid in Dying in New Mexicoby Sonja

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Morris v. New Mexico trial team

Compassion & Choices and the ACLU of New Mexico today concluded arguments in a landmark trial seeking to establish that aid in dying is legal in New Mexico. Morris v. New Mexico is a test case, bringing before a court for the first time the claim that ambiguous state laws prohibiting “assisted suicide” do not apply to physicians who write aid-in-dying prescriptions to mentally competent, terminally ill adults.

The court accepted an amicus brief in the case filed by the New Mexico Psychological Association. It concludes that “the practice of good professional psychology in New Mexico requires that the law … recognize that aid in dying is not a form of suicide.” The trial included two days of testimony from patient and physician plaintiffs, and expert witnesses. The judge said she intends to rule on the case within 30 days.

Compassion & Choices Director of Legal Affairs and Advocacy Kathryn Tucker and ACLU of New Mexico Legal Director Laura Schauer Ives jointly represent the plaintiffs. Tucker was counsel in a somewhat similar Montana case in which the right to choose aid in dying was recognized, Baxter v. Montana.

“This case challenges the assumption that vague, antiquated prohibitions of assisted suicide pertain to aid in dying. The assumption is unfounded,” says Tucker. “Such laws are intended to prevent the impulsive act of an otherwise healthy person to end his life, perhaps due to situational depression, causing impaired judgment. The choice of a mentally competent, terminally ill patient to cut short suffering before death, when the patient finds the dying process unbearable, is fundamentally different and not addressed by such laws.”

Patient plaintiff 49-year-old Aja Riggs testified about being diagnosed with advanced uterine cancer and wanting the comfort of knowing the option of aid in dying is available if her suffering in the final stages of her illness becomes unbearable.  Thankfully, Aja’s cancer has been in remission for about one year, but she realizes that statistically it is likely to return.

“I don’t want to suffer needlessly at the end,” she testified in court.

One of the physician witnesses was plaintiff Dr. Katherine Morris. She is a surgical oncologist from Albuquerque who previously practiced in Oregon, where she provided aid in dying to terminally ill patients. Dr. Morris and one of her patients were featured in HBO’s 2011 award-winning documentary, “How to Die in Oregon.”

“There are a lot of cruel things cancer can do, especially as they [patients] approach the end,” Dr. Morris testified in court.

You can read the widely published Associated Press story about the trial here: http://bit.ly/1e7Yu8K.