The issue of physician-assisted suicide has been hotly debated in the United States for decades. Jack Kevorkian, its most ardent supporter, conducted 130 assisted suicides in his lifetime. His belief was that a doctor’s “responsibilities include assisting their patients with death.” This debate was recently rekindled in New Mexico.
In the spring of 2012, Aja Riggs, a 49-year old uterine cancer patient, filed a suit in the Second District Court of Albuquerque, New Mexico, in which she demanded that her doctors be allowed to administer her a lethal injection if her pain became intolerable. Riggs became a plaintiff for a case that had been filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and Compassion & Choices, an end-of-life choice advocacy group. These two organizations had filed the case on behalf of New Mexico doctors Katherine Morris and Aroop Mangalik. Riggs was the only patient mentioned in the suit.
Although she was in remission at the time, the doctors who filed the case on her behalf asserted that if her condition deteriorates in the future, she should have the right to end her own life. Riggs had had surgery in October 2011, followed by aggressive chemotherapy. She experienced perpetual lethargy as a result of her treatment and her doctors discovered a second tumor after further tests. This tumor was also treated with radiation.
Riggs, who hails from Santa Fe, New Mexico, said, “It was a pretty darn rough winter, actually. I thought to myself, I don't know if I want to go all the way to the end with a death from cancer.” It was at this point that she thought about assisted suicide as a means to a “more peaceful and gentle death.”
The case, Morris v. New Mexico, was heard December 12th – 13th, 2013 with both sides making compelling cases. Assisted suicide had been classified as a fourth degree felony, with a prison sentence of up to 18 months and a fine of up to $5000, since 1963. Riggs’s lawyers argued that this law was not applicable to medical conditions. In court, Riggs stated, “I don’t want to suffer needlessly at the end.”
The defendants were Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg and New Mexico Attorney General Gary King. They filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the law passed in 1963 was consistent with New Mexico’s constitution. Their motion stated, “As plaintiffs describe it, the provision of 'aid in dying' is unquestionably assisted suicide.... Calling assisted suicide 'aid in dying' does not make the conduct so defined any less an assisted suicide.” The plaintiffs contested this, with Sean Crowley, media relations manager at Compassion & Choices saying, “Patients who choose aid in dying find the suggestion that they are committing 'suicide' deeply offensive, stigmatizing and inaccurate.” The ACLU of New Mexico’s legal director, Laura Schauer said the organization, “believes it is a basic fundamental right for a terminally ill patient to make this decision for themselves at the end of their life.”
In January 2014, after a month of intense deliberation, Judge Nan G. Nash of the Second Judicial District of Albuquerque passed a judgment in favor of the plaintiffs, effectively giving permission to doctors to prescribe fatal drugs to their terminally ill patients. In her 14-page ruling, Nash wrote:
“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. If decisions made in the shadow of one's imminent death regarding how they and their loved ones will face that death are not fundamental and at the core of these constitutional guarantees, than what decisions are?”
Although Nash rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the 1963 law did not apply to medical conditions, she did declare the ability of a terminally ill patient to end his or her life a fundamental right. This made New Mexico the fifth state to legalize physician-assisted suicide, after Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Montana. Oregon was the first to do so in 1997. Nash went on to say that, “In [these] states, there is no uncertainty in the law and the practice has developed as one of the standard-of-care options for mentally competent, terminally ill patients at the end of life.”
Riggs was glad that the decision was made in her favor, saying, “Most Americans want to die peacefully at home, surrounded by loved ones, not die in agony in a hospital. If my cancer returns and I face intolerable suffering, I want the option to cut it short, and to die peacefully at home.”
Allen Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference for Catholic Bishops, opposed the decision, saying, “This [ruling] places the right to die in the hands of a second person who has to make a judgment about you ... and that's riddled with ethical problems.” The office of the Attorney General of New Mexico considered appealing the case.
On March 12, 2014, Gary King, Attorney General of New Mexico appealed to have the decision made by Judge Nash overturned. The plaintiffs in Morris v. New Mexico had argued that “aid in dying,” or physician-assisted suicide, is not disallowed by New Mexico’s constitution because it is not assisted suicide. They further went on to argue that even if “aid in dying” is considered assisted suicide, then the assisted suicide law is unconstitutional as it “undermines the right to privacy and autonomy.” King argues that the new law is unconstitutional and does not apply to all of New Mexico. Reasserting the 1963 law, he says that assisted suicide should still be considered a felony, regardless of its purpose.
This appeal has reignited the debate over physician-assisted suicide in the United States, leaving the legal system and civil society at loggerheads once again. It will be important to follow developments in the case to see where New Mexico’s judiciary goes with the appeal. The question, however, is, will Gary King be able to make a convincing case against physician-assisted suicide?
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Photo Credit: Flickr user Linus Ekenstam