New Mexico and Death With Dignity

Oct 5, 2015 | 0 comments

In this opinion column by Erin Marshall with Compassion & Choices New Mexico, she makes the case for the state Supreme Court to rule in favor of physician aid in dying.

Erin Marshall, Compassion & Choices

Erin Marshall, Compassion & Choices

The end is important in all things — the ends of books, of movies, of relationships, of business deals — of everything. But there is one ending that no one ever wants to talk about and that’s the end of life.

It is incredibly important for people who are suffering, terminally ill and of sound mind to be able to author their final page with dignity, and on their own terms.

Labels like “physician-assisted suicide” and “death with dignity” communicate the contrasting ways aid in dying is viewed in our country and reflect how those views are shifting.

Equating the tragic act of suicide with the informed decision of a terminally ill, mentally competent adult, to end their own suffering is wrong. Medicine has changed over time, and a majority of U.S. physicians believe that patients with an incurable and terminal disease should have the option to choose death with dignity, with growing numbers of national health-care professional organizations endorsing aid in dying.

Four states have authorized aid in dying, embracing self-determination for their citizens.

For a time, New Mexico was on this list, but last month a divided state Court of Appeals overturned last year’s Second Judicial District Court ruling that there is a fundamental right to aid in dying in New Mexico’s Constitution.

The three appellate judges each wrote their own opinion, and in her dissent, Judge Linda Vanzi said the 2014 ruling should have stood.

District Chief Judge Nan Nash got it right in January 2014. She ruled to protect physicians who write a prescription for medication a dying person can take in their final days if their suffering becomes unbearable.

Nash wrote that an eligible adult’s right to that medication was integral to their liberty, safety and happiness under our State Constitution.

Overturning this decision was wrong, and hurtful to New Mexicans who only desire the right to quell their suffering and choose the path that’s best for them.

Even if only temporarily, this latest ruling is a source of anxiety and heartache for many dying New Mexicans and their loved ones. It has robbed them of the peace of mind they had enjoyed knowing they could control a frightening dying process.

The appellate ruling also flouts public sentiment.

A 2012 Research and Polling survey showed two out of three New Mexicans were in favor of allowing a mentally competent adult with a terminal disease, and no hope of recovery, to request medication from their physician to bring about their own death. Nationally, a 2015 Gallup poll noted that support for death with dignity rose 20 points in the last two years.

Aid in dying, at its essence, is about options. It’s about freedom – the freedom to end your own suffering, to go out on your own terms, to leave your friends and family and the world behind with a degree of self-determination that can quickly evaporate in the face of a terminal prognosis.

As Americans, we are free to choose so much about how we live, and we should be free to make these most personal end-of-life decisions with our families and our physicians, guided by sound medical standards.

As reported in the Albuquerque Journal on Sept. 2, the New Mexico Supreme Court will review the Court of Appeals decision in late October this year and render a final decision. While we know their final decision will directly affect a relatively small number of people, that effect will be profound.

For those New Mexicans who are terminally ill and of sound mind, and for their families and loved ones, nothing is as important as the freedom to write their own end to their own, unique story.

A Good Goodbye