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Terminally ill have right to choose physician aid in dying, New Mexico judge rules

Posted Jan 15, 2014 7:35 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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New Mexico’s state constitution protects physicians who prescribe medications to aid the death of terminally ill patients seeking a peaceful death, a state judge has ruled.

Judge Nan Nash ruled on Monday that a state law criminalizing assisted suicide is unconstitutional when applied to bar physician aid in dying.

Nash ruled in the case of Aja Riggs, who was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 2011. Though the cancer is now in remission, Riggs fears the disease could return and wants the option of aid in dying if the disease reaches the terminal stage, according to the opinion (PDF). Another plaintiff is oncologist Katherine Morris, who has refused to provide treatment to aid the death of terminally ill patients because she is uncertain whether she could face prosecution.

The Albuquerque Journal and KOB.com have stories. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico has a press release here; it filed the case with Compassion & Choices.

Nash said aid in dying is protected by New Mexico’s constitutional guarantee of the right to enjoy life and liberty, and to obtain and seek safety and happiness. “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.

New Mexico Attorney General’s Office is considering the possibility of an appeal, according to the Albuquerque Journal.

New Mexico is now the fifth state to affirmatively allow physician aid in dying, according to the ACLU. Oregon, Washington and Vermont have laws allowing the practice, while the Montana Supreme Court ruled that state law protects physicians in such cases. Meanwhile, in Hawaii, there is no ban on assisted suicide, the opinion says.

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