End-of-Life Choice, Palliative Care and Counseling

General News

Powerful Coalition Forms to Advance the Campaign to End Unwanted Medical Treatment

Compassion & Choices has united with 15 major healthcare and aging organizations in a powerful new coalition to ensure patients’ end-of-life wishes are honored. The coalition collaborators are advancing The Campaign to End Unwanted Medical Treatment, which builds on Compassion & Choices’ years of work in this area.

The campaign seeks to focus healthcare policymakers on establishing provisions to ensure that medical professionals determine and enforce patients’ end-of-life treatment directives.

“The assembly of these respected organizations around the problem of unwanted medical treatment is a major step forward to build consumer confidence surrounding the healthcare they receive throughout serious illnesses or at the end of life,” said Ashley Carson Cottingham, director of policy and advocacy at Compassion & Choices.

Dr. Bud Hammes from Gundersen Health of LaCrosse, WI, led the first in a series of Washington, D.C., policy luncheons. He showcased Respecting Choices, a program in which an amazing 96% of patients have stated their advance care plans and medical staff adhere to the plans 98% of the time. The program’s centerpiece is an effort to listen to patients discuss their values, preferences and goals, and then align the patient’s medical treatment plan with those criteria. Respecting Choices employs a medical protocol for advance care planning that includes a quality-improvement process and accountability for medical staff – the same approach applied to other standard medical care. More

Patients Should Decide

by Dustin J. Hankinson


Self-determination is one characteristic that defines human dignity. When a person reaches adulthood, it is expected that they make decisions to live the life they aspire to. Society is based on people taking responsibility for their decisions and lives

If individuals have the right to decide how to live, they also should have the absolute right to decide the manner of their death when faced with an imminent terminal illness. It is a patient’s life, body and mind; therefore, that patient should be the decision-maker in dying.

As a 38-year-old disabled man with a terminal diagnosis of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, I value the expertise of medical professionals. However, I alone reserve my right as the patient to decide which treatments I receive, and I believe that my decisions outweigh those of anyone else regarding my medical care. In a free society, personal choice regarding medical treatment should be a fundamental human right! More

Landmark Trial Could Establish Physician Aid in Dying in New Mexico

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.” More

Associated Press Coverage of New Mexico Trial

Trial on assisted suicide law begins in New Mexico

By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN Associated Press  Twitter: @susanmbryanNM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—Lawyers representing two doctors and a Santa Fe woman with advanced uterine cancer began their opening statement on Wednesday in a case challenging a decades-old New Mexico law that prohibits assisted suicide.
Cancer doctors Katherine Morris and Aroop Mangalik and patient Aja Riggs want a district court judge to clarify the law by ruling physicians who help competent, terminally ill patients end their lives are not in violation of the state’s assisted suicide law.

Currently, whoever assists with suicide can be found guilty of a fourth-degree felony under the statute in question.

“This is a case about choice,” Laura Schauer Ives, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, told Judge Nan Nash. “The evidence will show this is a safe choice. This is a compassionate choice.”

The lawsuit against the state has the support of the New Mexico Psychological Association, the largest organization of professional psychologists in the state. The group filed a brief Tuesday, arguing that assisted suicide and “aid in dying” for terminally ill patients are fundamentally different.

“We believe it is important that the law reflects this distinction so that doctors are not prevented from providing patients with more comfort and control during their dying process,” said Rob Schwartz, a University of New Mexico law professor and co-author of the brief.

Kathryn Tucker, director of legal affairs for Compassion & Choices, said there’s growing support for physicians to help terminally ill patients who want to end their lives.

Five states already allow patients to seek aid in dying if their condition becomes unbearable, she said.

In his opening statement, defense attorney Scott Fuqua countered that the case is about legal autonomy. The testimony of patients and doctors will be compelling, he said, but the result of “aid in dying” is the same as suicide in that a person’s life is being ended and that is a violation of the law crafted by state lawmakers.

There is no evidence that suggests the Legislature took an unconstitutional action, Fuqua said.

The trial in state District Court in Albuquerque was prompted by the lawsuit filed in March 2012 on behalf of plaintiffs by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the Denver-based group Compassion & Choices.

Riggs, a 49-year-old Santa Fe resident who has undergone aggressive radiation and chemotherapy treatment, joined the lawsuit in May 2012. She said she doesn’t know if she would go through the process if New Mexico doctors are allowed to assist terminally ill patients in dying, but she wants to at least have the option.

New Mexico Trial to Establish Aid in Dying to Begin Dec. 11

The trial is set for Dec. 11 and 12 starting at 8:30 a.m. MST in the Second Judicial District Court in Albuquerque (Rm. 602, 400 Lomas Blvd. NW). This case, for the first time before a court, seeks to establish that vague, antiquated state laws prohibiting “assisted suicide” do not apply to physicians who write prescriptions to mentally competent, terminally ill adults for medications the patient can ingest to choose a peaceful death if they find their dying process unbearable. New Mexicans, both healthy and sick, want the comfort and peace of mind that comes with having some control over their dying process at the end of life.

Legal co-counsel in the case are Kathryn Tucker, director of legal affairs and advocacy for Compassion & Choices and Laura Schauer Ives, legal director for the ACLU of New Mexico.

Plaintiffs in the case are Aja Riggs, a 49-year-old Santa Fe woman with advanced uterine cancer and Dr. Katherine Morris, a surgical oncologist from Albuquerque who previously practiced in Oregon, where she has provided aid in dying to terminally ill patients.

Riggs, who’s cancer is currently in remission, wants the comfort of knowing the option of aid in dying is available if her suffering in the final stages of her illness becomes unbearable, as it is likely to return. Dr. Morris and one of her terminally ill patients were featured in HBO’s 2011 award-winning documentary, “How to Die in Oregon.”

For more details on the case, visit http://www.compassionandchoices.org/what-we-do/in-the-courts/morris-v-new-mexico/ or follow the links below to recent media coverage.