Close to 30 terminally ill New Mexicans — possibly more — have ended their lives under a medical aid-in-dying law that went into effect in June.

The law allows terminally ill patients who are of sound mind to take their own lives with the aid of a physician. To qualify for aid in dying under the bill, a patient has to be an adult, a New Mexico resident and mentally capable of making an informed decision about whether to obtain and self-administer lethal prescription drugs.

At the time legislators approved the bill creating the Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act, which Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law in April, it was unknown how many New Mexicans would ask a physician for a life-ending prescription.

The numbers are starting to roll in, and based on unofficial reports, an average of seven to eight people have sought the drugs each month.

“To date, more than 20 [deaths under the law] have been reported to Department of Health,” Rep. Debbie Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, the primary sponsor of the legislation, told her colleagues Tuesday.

“We happen to know of close to 30,” she added during a hearing before the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee. “We don’t necessarily know them all. They don’t have to report to us. It’s through our relationships with entities that we have heard about many.”

Armstrong said there have been “ingestions” in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Farmington, Gallup and Truth or Consequences.

“We’re working with patients or have serious inquiries from Roswell, from Catron County, from Taos, calls from all over the state about the law and what the access is,” she said.

Dr. Rob Schwartz, who teaches health law at the University of New Mexico, said the state’s legislation “has been implemented more effectively, more smoothly than some of the laws in almost any other state — probably in any other state.”

But, he said, there are a few sections of the law that are not necessarily being fully implemented yet.

“There are a few areas where medical culture hasn’t really caught up with the law,” he said.



The first involves right-to-know provisions for terminally ill patients, who must be told by a medical provider of the option of aid in dying even if the provider does not offer prescriptions for the life-ending drugs.

“The provider doesn’t have to offer it, but the provider has to tell the patient that it’s one of their options, and this obligation to inform patients of all their options, I think, has not yet taken root with regard to medical aid in dying, at least across all providers,” Schwartz said. “We hope this will change. We hope that the time will come soon when all providers at least explain this option to their patients and allow their patients to make the choice.”

In addition, he said, hospitals and other health care institutions are supposed to disclose on their websites and written materials if they don’t offer aid in dying, and “that is not being fully honored across the state.”

The second shortcoming involves conscience clause protections for health care providers.

“It provides a very strong protection for those who want to opt out, but it also protects those who want to participate,” Schwartz said, adding it may not be well understood that providers who work at institutions that opt out of aid in dying are allowed to participate as long as they do so off the campus and off the clock of the employer who prohibits it.

“Those of us who support aid in dying don’t see any legal remedies,” he said. “We believe that the way to achieve the goals [of the law] is through education, through example and to some extent through market competition among health care providers in the state.”

The law was named after a judge who died of cancer in 2018 after advocating for medical aid-in-dying legislation.

“This act is not really about people dying,” Dr. David R. Grube, national medical director for Compassion & Choices, a nonprofit that supports end-of-life options, told members of the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee. “It’s about dealing with intolerable terminal suffering, and so now in New Mexico, the same number of people will die but less of them will suffer.”

The underlying terminal condition is listed as the cause of death on a death certificate, Armstrong said.

Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, said he felt “very humbled” to have co-sponsored the legislation.

“For some of us legislators, this has been a real high point,” he said. “I mean, for me personally, this reminds me why it’s important to be a state legislator. You know, we really can make a difference in people’s lives.”

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter

@danieljchacon.

(4) comments

Kim Griego-Kiel

After watching my brother suffocate to death from ALS, a very cruel disease, and being with him for his last moments of life, I am grateful for this legislation.

Marlow Morrison

Having volunteered and been employed in Hospice as well as an active member in National Home Funeral Alliance. I’ve supported this legislation for many many years. I’ve always found it interesting that pet owners are horrified at the idea their animals may suffer at the end of life yet nothing has been accessible to our human family members during the same circumstances. Those who oppose this choice should challenge themselves to sit next to the bed of people terminally dying in uncontrollable pain watch not only the distress of the dying but the loved ones who are with them for weeks and months; it’s horrific and traumatic for everyone involved. Thank you to the people who dedicated their time to making this choice possible and lessening the unnecessary suffering of so many.

Margaret Eyler

And the sick irony of the last quote is just too much. Well done, all.

Margaret Eyler

Lol falsifying cause of death on death certificates. The whole situation is garbage but at least we can almost laugh at that part.

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