Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

Assisted suicide debate stirs in New Mexico

Staff writer

[email protected]

Recent news of terminally ill patient Brittany Maynard's use of Oregon's “death with dignity” law to end her life is spurring renewed interest in the debate over the legality of assisted suicide in other states, particularly New Mexico.

While it is a prosecutable offense in eastern New Mexico for a physician to assist someone in committing suicide, that’s not the case in Albuquerque.

The New Mexico statute at the heart of the debate is NMSA 1978, 30-2-4, enacted in 1963. The statute states: “Assisting suicide consists of deliberately aiding another in the taking of his own life. Whoever commits assisting suicide is guilty of a fourth-degree felony.”

But in 2012, physicians Katherine Morris, Aroop Mangalik and terminally ill patient Aja Riggs filed a challenge to the statute in New Mexico's 2nd Judicial District, citing uncertainty with the scope of the law and its possible confliction with the New Mexico constitution.

Judge Nan G. Nash of the 2nd Judicial District ruled that the statute violates New Mexico’s state constitution when applied to “aid in dying.”

“The Court therefore declares that the liberty, safety and happiness interest of a competent, terminally ill patient to choose aid in dying is a fundamental right under our New Mexico Constitution,” she wrote.

The term “aid in dying” was distinguished from “assisted suicide” in the case, referring to the practice of a physician providing a mentally competent and terminally ill patient with a prescription they may choose to use to end their life. The plaintiffs refer to other professionals who believe that a “…mentally competent, terminally ill patient who has elected aid in dying has not committed suicide.”

The defendants in the case, Kari Brandenburg, in her official capacity as district attorney for Bernalillo County, and New Mexico Attorney General Gary King, filed a motion to dismiss the case claiming the statute is “entirely consistent with the New Mexico constitution.”

The court of appeals is currently reviewing Nash's decision, which could take more than a year.

“The briefing is now complete, but we don't yet know if the Court of Appeals intends to conduct oral argument, and we would expect a decision no earlier than next fall,” said Lynn Southard, the AG’s deputy director of communications.

Until the court of appeals releases its decision, the DA in the 2nd Judicial District and the attorney general cannot prosecute a physician under the statute for engaging in the conduct defined in Nash’s decision as “aid in dying.” However, Nash has no jurisdiction outside of her district, which means the DAs in the remaining 12 judicial districts could prosecute a physician in their district who engages in “aid in dying.”

Just as the issue polarizes legislators within the state, across the country the issue has the public divided as well. In a 2013 Pew Research Center Survey, on the issue of physician-assisted suicide, 47 percent of the public approves and 49 percent disapproves of laws that would allow a physician to prescribe lethal doses of drugs that a terminally ill patient could use to commit suicide.