Landmark Case May Set Precedent for Challenging “Assisted Suicide” Laws in Other States
(Albuquerque, N.M. – January 13, 2014) New Mexico Second Judicial District Judge Nan Nash today issued a landmark decision that terminally ill, mentally competent patients have a fundamental right to aid in dying under the substantive due process clause of the New Mexico State Constitution. This ruling protects the medical practice from prosecution in Bernalillo County, New Mexico. If affirmed, the ruling will impact the entire state.
Judge Nash explained her ruling as follows:
“This Court cannot envision a right more fundamental, more private or more integral to the liberty, safety and happiness of a New Mexican than the right of a competent, terminally ill patient to choose aid in dying. If decisions made in the shadow of one’s imminent death regarding how they and their loved ones will face that death are not fundamental and at the core of these constitutional guarantees, than [sic] what decisions are? … The Court therefore declares that the liberty, safety and happiness interest of a competent, terminally ill patient to choose aid in dying is a fundamental right under our New Mexico Constitution.”
Nash’s ruling followed two days of trial testimony on Dec. 11-12 in a suit, Morris v. New Mexico, filed in the state’s Second Judicial District Court by the ACLU of New Mexico and Compassion & Choices on behalf of two physicians and a cancer patient.
“New Mexicans, both healthy and sick, now enjoy the comfort and peace of mind that come with knowing they can prevent a prolonged, agonized dying process at the end of life,” said ACLU of New Mexico Legal Director Laura Schauer Ives. “The court agreed that the New Mexico Constitution guarantees terminally ill patients they do not have to stay trapped in a dying process they find unbearable.”
The New Mexico Psychological Association filed an amicus brief supporting the suit. It concluded: “The practice of good professional psychology in New Mexico requires that the law … recognize that aid in dying is not a form of suicide.”
Four other states affirmatively permit aid in dying: Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont.
“This ruling means the world to dying patients who want the option to die with dignity,” said Compassion & Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee, an attorney who coauthored the nation’s first death-with-dignity law in Oregon. “The movement for end-of-life choices is gaining momentum across our nation. My experience as a nurse at the bedside of dying patients tells me end-of-life liberty is long overdue. ”
The ability to make choices in the final stages of terminal illness matters deeply to New Mexicans like 49-year-old Santa Fe resident Aja Riggs, who was diagnosed with advanced uterine cancer and was the patient plaintiff in Morris v. New Mexico. Riggs is currently in remission, but realizes that statistically her cancer is likely to return.
“I am really pleased that the court has recognized that terminally ill patients should have more choice in the manner of their death,” said Riggs. “Knowing that I have a choice at the end gives me great comfort and peace of mind.”
Two Albuquerque oncologists, Dr. Aroop Mangalik and Dr. Katherine Morris, are also plaintiffs in the case. Dr. Morris previously practiced in Oregon, where she has provided aid in dying to terminally ill patients. Dr. Morris and one of her terminally ill patients were featured in HBO’s 2011 award-winning documentary, How to Die in Oregon.
“Surgical oncologists like me know we can’t save every cancer patient,” said Dr. Morris. “It’s important that we have every tool in the toolbox to respond when dying patients who are suffering request options to die with dignity”