A New Mexico judge’s recent ruling that the state constitution protects the right of a terminally ill patient to seek a physician’s aid in dying is likely to be appealed.

New Mexico Attorney General Gary King told The New Mexican that he was inclined to appeal the District Court ruling mere minutes after Santa Fe Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan urged an appeal during a breakfast with lawmakers Wednesday morning.

“I think it’s likely that we will appeal,” King said Wednesday. “This does seem to be a case where an appeal would be good to get some final determination that applies statewide.”

The case centers on a Santa Fe woman, Aja Riggs, 50, who was diagnosed with an aggressive uterine cancer and underwent major surgery, radiation therapy and six rounds of chemotherapy to battle it. Her cancer is in remission, but doctors expect it to return.

Riggs joined two doctors in filing a landmark lawsuit in the state’s 2nd Judicial District Court in Albuquerque, where Judge Nan G. Nash ruled last week that terminally ill patients do have the right to aid in dying, and that “such deaths are not considered ‘suicide’ under New Mexico’s Assisted Suicide Statute.”

“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,” Nash wrote in the ruling.

The ruling is ambiguous as to whether it applies statewide or just in Bernalillo County.

King and numerous lawmakers attended the 23rd annual New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops legislative breakfast before the Legislature convened Wednesday. Sheehan opened his remarks by asserting the Catholic Church’s opposition to assisted suicide.

“The church teaches that life is sacred from conception through to natural death,” he said.

The archbishop dismissed criticisms that the church’s position is cruel or out of step with the times. “This assisted-suicide thing concerns me,” Sheehan said. “I foresee dangerous consequences.”

Families looking to protect their inheritances from expensive, prolonged end-of-life health care could feel pressure to end relatives’ lives prematurely, Sheehan predicted. He also expressed doubt that sufficient safeguards are in place to assure that patients are of sound mind when they elect to end their lives with a doctor’s help.

King said discussions with 2nd District Attorney Kari Brandenburg are ongoing about possible grounds for an appeal. The most likely point of legal attack is which arm of government has appropriate jurisdiction to establish physician-assisted suicide policy.

“This is a decision that’s sort of in the realm of the state Legislature,” King said.

The Attorney General’s Office had argued in the Riggs case that a 50-year-old New Mexico law that makes assisting in a suicide a felony offense applies to doctors who help patients die.



The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the national advocacy group Compassion & Choices, however, argued that doctors prescribing lethal doses of medication to terminally ill patients of sound mind who want to hurry their deaths is protected by the constitution.

Nash accepted the attorney general’s argument, but ruled that the rights afforded by the New Mexico Constitution supersede it.

“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, [then] what decisions are?” Nash wrote in her opinion.

Doctors can legally aid in dying by statute in Oregon, Washington and Vermont, and on authority of a state Supreme Court opinion in Montana. Hawaii has no criminal prohibition against assisted suicide.

Information from the Los Angeles Times was included in this report.

Contact Patrick Malone at pmalone@sfnewmexican.com.

Correction Appended: Jan. 23, 2014

This story has been amended to reflect the following corrections. Because of an editing error, a quote from Attorney General Gary King stating "The thoughts of the Catholic Church are very influential in New Mexico policy," was moved and placed out of the context. He made the quote in answering a reporter's question about the church's influence on lawmakers, not about his decision to appeal the ruling on assisted suicide, as the quote's placement in the story made it appear. The story has also been clarified to note that the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the national advocacy group Compassion & Choices argued that doctors prescribing -- not administering, as originally stated in the story -- lethal doses of medication to terminally ill patients of sound mind to hurry their deaths is protected by the constitution.

(9) comments

Roberto Dorsetti

The Archbishop obviously has not been around dying people and their families in any meaningful way.... As a hospice worker I can attest that his observations regarding families being concerned about inheritances is so remote in regard to the reality dying loved ones and their families... Here is his comment:

Families looking to protect their inheritances from expensive, prolonged end-of-life health care could feel pressure to end relatives’ lives prematurely, Sheehan predicted.

His comments, typical of his church doctrine, is based on fear, not love, and certainly not reality.

I am concerned that people with this kind of mindset is actually influencing our laws.

Pierce Knolls

"King and numerous lawmakers attended the 23rd annual New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops legislative breakfast before the Legislature convened Wednesday."

Well, there's your problem. Why is the Catholic Church allowed to tell our lawmakers how to do their jobs?

henry Griswold

so i guess death by war is considered 'natural'?

Mel Hayes

Religion is self-imposed insanity, it allows people by the billions to believe things only lunatics could believe on their own. You must choose between faith and reason. You cannot have both. Pick one lose the other. It's your choice.......

Dawn Foy

No separation of church and State? Allow adult people to make their own decisions based on their own beliefs. Why does the state gov't have the right to interfere due to a single religious groups beliefs?

mark ropel

No one should suffer just because of another person's supernatural beliefs, that's just crazy.

Carolyn Garcia-Martinez

Leave it the he!! alone, AG. If you want to die a slow, painful, miserable death with absolutely no dignity left, then go right ahead. We won't feel sorry for you. We're not all foolish Catholics and this is being forced on absolutely NO ONE. It's just another choice we're being given as this state struggles to get out of previous century.

Roberto Dorsetti

Whatever happen to "separation of church and state?" The basis for most bishop's thinking is grounded in the fourth century, and has been perpetuated to the present. The virtual elimination of women from leadership roles in the Catholic Church substantiates that statement (and I'm a man). This elimination has submerge feminine values(which we all should possess) of caring,nurturing, etc. in personal, relational, political and spiritual decisions and actions. The suppression of sexuality among the clergy has erupted into shameful scandals associated with harming our children, which resulted in the last Pope defrocking over 400 priests. The bishops of the Catholic Church should be focusing on their own introspection first rather than meddling in political decision-making, or even what they call "morals." (Is it correct that the official position of the Catholic Church regarding birth control is that if a person practices birth control, they are liable to going to hell and burn for all eternity?...which I understand most Catholics just ignore him) For openers, perhaps the bishops ought to go back to the fourth century and start over, or at least practice a little humility by questioning the outdated basis for their thinking, or perhaps start practicing what Jesus taught: "a NEW law I give you... Love God and love your neighbor as yourself."

Pam Walker

I guess Sheehan hasn't sat next to his dying Mother that was wracked with pain from terminal cancer and pleading with someone to end her misery. And I guess you could say she wasn't in her right mind because she hurt so bad with no hope for anything that could ease it and just wanted out. And then you wonder why so many people end up blowing themselves away because they see no other way out. this causes even more trauma for the loved ones. I am so sick of government having their foot in our lives whether living or dying.

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