Polls show the general public and physicians split on the issue, though support is higher than it was in decades past. There is a movement in many other states to legalize assisted suicide.
Aja Riggs, a 49-year-old Santa Fe resident who has undergone radiation and chemotherapy treatment for advanced uterine cancer, sued in 2012 to determine whether physicians would be breaking the law if they wrote her a prescription for medications that would end her life. She was joined in her suit by two oncologists, Drs. Katherine Morris and Aroop Mangalik. They had the support of the ACLU of New Mexico, Compassion & Choices, and the New Mexico Psychological Association. Riggs has said she wants to live but also wants the option of dying if her condition worsens. “I don't want to suffer needlessly at the end,” she told a judge.
Second Judicial District Judge Nan Nash ruled in favor of Riggs and the doctors. “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,” she wrote following a two-day bench trial in December. “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.”
The New Mexico Attorney General's office said it was considering an appeal but needs to fully review the judge's ruling first.
Critics of physician-assisted suicide laws, notably the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, contend that such laws make patients, including disabled people, vulnerable to pressure to end their lives. But years of experience in Oregon and Washington have not borne out those concerns.
Those two states have established a formal process for terminally ill patients seeking aid in dying, including requiring the certification of two physicians that the patient has six months or less to live, is mentally competent, and has chosen the option voluntarily.
Small numbers of people in those two states—mostly well-educated white people suffering from cancer—have ended their lives each year. But many more have received the medication and never used it.
One factor affecting patients' ability to access aid in dying is the increase in the number of healthcare facilities affiliated with Catholic healthcare providers. Some hospitals and hospices in Washington that previously referred terminally ill patients to organizations such as Compassion & Choices that counsel them about their aid-in-dying option stopped doing so after affiliating with Catholic systems.
Follow Harris Meyer on Twitter: @MHHmeyer