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 email@example.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.