A 48-year-old Santa Fe woman with advanced uterine cancer has joined a case asking a court to clarify the ability of mentally competent, terminally ill patients to obtain aid in dying from their physician if they find their dying process unbearable. Aja Riggs, whose cancer is advanced and aggressive, joined two prominent Albuquerque physicians, Dr. Katherine Morris and Dr. Aroop Mangalik, as a plaintiff in the case. Kathryn Tucker, legal director of the national nonprofit Compassion & Choices, and Laura Ives, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico, are serving as co-counsel in the case.
Ms. Riggs was diagnosed in August, 2011; surgery in October and subsequent developments revealed the severity and aggressiveness of her cancer. Since then doctors have treated her with radiation and chemotherapy. For much of the time she has suffered debilitating exhaustion. In December she suffered neutropenia — an immune system “crash” — requiring hospitalization.
“That experience,” said Ms. Riggs, “and the amount of pain and intensive medical treatment, has made me think: If this disease is going to take my life, I don’t want to go to the very end with it. I understand people can’t really know how they’ll feel until they actually get there. So I don’t know for sure how I will feel, as I get closer to death. But I do know I want to have the choice.”
The plaintiffs request a ruling that physicians who provide a prescription for medication to a mentally competent, terminally ill patient, which the patient could consume to bring about a peaceful death, would not be subject to criminal prosecution under existing New Mexico law, which makes a crime of assisting another to ‘commit suicide.’ The choice of a dying patient for a peaceful death is no kind of ‘suicide,’ the case asserts, and the physician does not assist such a patient in ‘committing suicide.’
“When I heard about this case on the radio it answered the dilemma I’ve been struggling with,” said Ms. Riggs. “I’ve been thinking, very seriously, about having some control over the end of my life, and I felt I couldn’t talk about it with the people closest to me. I was afraid to talk about it with my doctor. I thought if it came to choosing a peaceful death, I would have to do it on my own to keep from implicating anyone else. To end that sense of fear and isolation that people have — about one of the most important events in our lives — that’s why I think aid in dying should be an option for terminally ill patients.”
The filing and supporting declarations can be viewed here: http://CompassionAndChoices.org/Morris