The state of New Mexico assures aid in dying to terminally ill patients. Second Judicial District Judge Nan G. Nash rendered her decision Monday, saying terminally ill patients have the right to request a physician’s assistance in obtaining medication to encourage a placid death, according to the New Mexico Constitution.
The decision by Judge Nash came after hearing the case of Santa Fe plaintiff Aja Riggs, 49, whose advanced uterine cancer is in remission but has the possibility of recurrence. Riggs’s lawsuit was filed on her behalf by the ACLU and Compassion & Choices, a group that advocates for the rights of terminally ill patients. Riggs was a plaintiff along with two other doctors, Katherine Morris and Aroop Mangalik, who filed their lawsuit in March 2012; Riggs joined them a few months later. The doctors wanted to be sure they would not be prosecuted if they helped terminally ill patients pass away peacefully with pain medication administration.
The New Mexico Constitution states, “Assisting Suicide defines assisting suicide as the act of deliberately aiding another in the taking of his own life.” The Assisted Suicide Statute makes assisting suicide a fourth-degree felony in New Mexico.” While this sounds plain enough, it is up to the discretion of the judge as to whether this pertains to particular cases, notably in Riggs’s case. Riggs was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 2011, and she wants peace of mind if the cancer returns and it is terminal. She is seeking “aid in dying” in case the pain becomes unbearable. She received good news from the judge, who ruled that the New Mexico Constitution assures aid in dying to terminally ill patients.
Judge Nash’s interpretation was such that she cited the New Mexico Constitution, saying in her ruling that New Mexicans have the basic right to live as comfortably as possible, and knowing they are in safe hands will give terminally ill patients comfort toward the end of life. According to Judge Nash, providing aid to dying patients is not tantamount to assisted suicide. The judge ruled that Drs. Morris and Mangalik would not be committing a felony if they administered sedatives to terminally ill patients, a ruling that may be challenged by the District Attorney’s office with the filing of an appeal.
On Riggs’s part, she is happy with Judge Nash’s decision, saying she now has a choice to die at home if she so chooses. Her cancer is such that there is a high probability it will return, and if it does, she wants to be surrounded by her loved ones, not stuck in a hospital.
If the appeal from the District Attorney’s office does not come to fruition, New Mexico would be the fifth state that assures aid in dying to terminally ill patients. The other four states that allow aid in dying are Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont although in Hawaii, aid in dying is not a criminal offense. Offering aid in dying means to alleviate the unbearable pain due to an underlying terminal disease with medications to help achieve a placid death. Most cancer patients just want the option but many choose to opt out of taking medication toward the end of life.
By Juana Poareo