ALBUQUERQUE — Two doctors and a Santa Fe woman with advanced uterine cancer want physicians in New Mexico to be able to prescribe — without the fear of prosecution — the needed medications for terminally ill patients who want to end their lives on their own terms.
Standing in their way is a decades-old state law that makes it a fourth-degree felony to assist someone in suicide.
Doctors Katherine Morris and Aroop Mangalik and patient Aja Riggs took their case to state District Court on Wednesday. Their lawyers are asking the court to clarify that physicians are not breaking the law if they write such prescriptions for competent, terminally ill patients who want to end their lives to “avoid unbearable suffering.”
“This is a case about choice,” Laura Schauer Ives, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, told Judge Nan Nash. “The evidence will show this is a safe choice. This is a compassionate choice.”
The lawsuit against the state has the support of the New Mexico Psychological Association, the largest organization of professional psychologists in the state. The group filed a brief Tuesday, arguing that assisted suicide and “aid in dying” for terminally ill patients are fundamentally different.
“We believe it is important that the law reflects this distinction so that doctors are not prevented from providing patients with more comfort and control during their dying process,” said Rob Schwartz, a University of New Mexico law professor and co-author of the brief.
Schauer Ives reiterated that argument Wednesday in court, citing the differences between terminally ill patients who are fighting to see another day and want the peace of mind of having a choice and those who commit suicide while awash in despair and isolation.
Kathryn Tucker, director of legal affairs for Compassion & Choices, said there’s growing support for physicians to help terminally ill patients who want to end their lives.
Five states, including Oregon, allow patients to seek aid in dying if their conditions become unbearable, she said.
In his opening statement, state attorney Scott Fuqua said the case is about legal autonomy. The testimony of patients and doctors will be compelling, he said, but the result of aid in dying is the same as suicide in that a person’s life is being ended and that’s a violation of the law crafted by state lawmakers.
There’s no evidence that suggests the Legislature took an unconstitutional action, Fuqua said.
The trial was prompted by a lawsuit filed in March 2012 on behalf of plaintiffs by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the Denver-based group Compassion & Choices.
Riggs, a 49-year-old Santa Fe resident who has undergone aggressive radiation and chemotherapy treatment, joined the lawsuit in May 2012. She testified Wednesday that her cancer is in remission but there have been days when getting out of bed and walking 15 feet were an uphill battle. There also have been days when simply talking required too much energy, she said.
Riggs, who has been using her “bonus time” to travel the country in a camper van, said she wants to live, but she also wants the option if her condition worsens.
“I don’t want to suffer needlessly at the end,” she said.
Morris, an oncologist at The University of New Mexico, told the judge about patients who can’t swallow, those whose skin splits from the buildup of fluid in their bodies and those who have to be sedated to the point of being unconscious to alleviate the pain.
“There are a lot of cruel things cancer can go, especially as they approach the end,” Morris said, later explaining that aid in dying offers patients a sense of comfort and control that’s far from anything related to suicide.