On Tuesday, August 11, a divided New Mexico Court of Appeals reversed a court ruling that allowed mentally competent, terminally ill patients to choose their own time to die with aid from a physician. This means the January 2014 ruling by 2nd Judicial District Chief Judge Nan Nash, which permanently barred the state from prosecuting a physician who provides aid in dying for end-of-life, no longer provides protection from prosecution.
Next stop: the New Mexico Supreme Court.
In a town hall telephone meeting today, Barbara Coombs Lee, national president of Compassion and Choices, the nation’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to improving care and expanding choices for end-of-life, and Laura Schauer Ives, JD, the ACLU-NM Cooperating Attorney who is pursuing this case, spoke about the ruling and next steps.
“I wish we were meeting under happier circumstances,” said Coombs Lee. “We were very disappointed in this ruling and saw this as taking something away from New Mexico residents.”
“We know that people in New Mexico have benefited and received great comfort from having the aid in dying option available to them. It’s a great loss for us and the people of New Mexico, to have this right taken away from them,” she continued. “Compassion and Choices will continue to do what we have done for the past 20 years – provide consultation, non-judgmental support and information about how people can avail themselves of all options to achieve a peaceful and dignified death.”
Attorney Laura Schauer Ives said, “This is the first time that the safety and efficacy of physician aid in dying has been presented through witnesses. We are confident that we will eventually prevail.”
She noted that the Court of Appeals issued an unusually fractured opinion, with each judge writing an opinion: main, concurring and opposing. Judge Garcia wrote the main opinion, and left open the possibility of a fundamental right to aid in dying. The concurring opinion by Judge Hannisee indicated that if it wasn’t explicitly stated in the NM Constitution, he wouldn’t recognize the right. Judge Vanzi’s dissenting opinion indicated this is something that has been taken away and is represented in the Constitution.
Compassion and Choices hopes to establish this right constitutionally through the New Mexico Supreme Court rather than legislatively through the state house and senate. Ives plans to expedite getting the case on the Supreme Court docket within the next few months.
“Our Supreme Court is not afraid of doing something new. I look forward to getting this before the Supreme Court as soon as possible,” said Ives.
After this Appeals Court ruling, physicians are no longer protected from prosecution for having a conversation on end-of-life and prescribing medication for aid in dying. “We’re back to winks and nods, until the Supreme Court rules on this,” said Coombs Lee. Those doctors who Compassion and Choices has been in touch with on this issue have been contacted about the change.
One participant on the call said she knows of people who are collecting medications to achieve a peaceful way to end their lives. Coombs Lee noted that it is better to have a legal route to a safe and peaceful ending. Compassion and Choices offers free consultations with trained counselors to help people avoid doing anything precipitous or unwise.
When people call 800-247-7421 and ask for an end-of-life consultant, the call will go to voice mail. Leave a message with the phone number to call and the call will be returned.
“Given our optimism about an ultimate, clear verdict from the state Supreme Court authorizing aid in dying, we intend to continue laying groundwork to make sure terminally ill New Mexicans and their loved ones have access to the option of aid in dying,” said Erin Marshall, New Mexico Campaign Manager for Compassion and Choices.
Read the story about the ruling in the Albuquerque Journal: “NM Court of Appeals reverses ‘aid in dying’ approval”