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State’s Highest Court Denies Right to Medical Aid in Dying for Terminally Ill New Mexicans

Plaintiffs in Original Case Morris v. New Mexico Condemn the Decision

(Albuquerque, NM – June 30, 2016) – Four years after two oncologists and their patient asked a New Mexico Court to authorize medical aid in dying for terminally ill New Mexico residents, the state’s Supreme Court has decisively ruled against a constitutional right to this end-of-life option.

In the unanimous ruling, it wrote: “We respectfully acknowledge the magnitude and importance of the very personal desire of a terminally ill patient to decide how to safely and peacefully exit a painful and debilitating life. The personal autonomy to make one’s own medical decisions, even those that can hasten one’s own death, are recognized in the UHCDA [the Uniform Health Care Decisions Act] and the Pain Relief Act, which provide numerous safeguards to protect the integrity of those decisions.” Still, the court concluded that rather than “defining the asserted right in this case, i.e., the right to a physician’s aid in dying, in its comprehensive sense through judicial ruling, it is clear to us that such a right cannot be defined without comprehensive legislation.”

The decision upholds a 2015 appellate court ruling that medical aid in dying is not a right under the state’s constitution and that it is a matter for the legislature to decide.

“We are saddened by this decision,” said Barbara Coombs Lee, President of Compassion & Choices, the group that co-filed the original case with the ACLU of New Mexico. “Since the appellate court reversed the lower court’s protection for end-of-life liberty last August, New Mexicans have suffered needlessly at the end of life, deepening the grief of their loved ones. Many have died without the comfort of access to aid in dying if their suffering became unbearable. The justices could have ended this tragedy, but they did not.”

Today’s decision means physicians across the state could be prosecuted under a 1963 state statute prohibiting “assisted suicide” if they provide aid in dying to their eligible patients immediately.

During the 19 months (Jan 13, 2014 – Aug 11, 2015) that a district judge’s ruling prevailed, physicians in Bernalillo County, New Mexico were able to provide medical aid in dying for their eligible patients. Aid in dying is a prescription medication that a terminally ill, mentally capable adult can take, when and whether they choose, to shorten a dying process if their suffering becomes unbearable. That decision was appealed by then New Mexico Attorney General Gary King, resulting in a fractured ruling; a powerful dissent by Judge Linda Vanzi, however, validated District Judge Jan Nash’s ruling that aid in dying is a right under the New Mexico Constitution.