A state District Court judge ruled Monday to affirm physician aid in death. Second Judicial Judge Nan Nash found for the plaintiff in a court case aimed at determining whether New Mexico’s terminally ill, mentally competent patients may choose to ask a doctor to hasten their deaths.
Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union say the ruling makes New Mexico the sixth state to take such a stance. Oregon, Washington, Montana, Hawaii and most recently Vermont have experienced similar judgements. Nash's ruling comes a month after she heard arguments on the case filed by the ACLU of New Mexico, Denver-based Compassion & Choices and uterine cancer patient and plaintiff in the case, Santa Fe resident Aja Riggs.
“I am really pleased that the courts have recognized that terminally ill patients should have more choice in the manner of their death,” says Riggs.
The 50-year-old who has battled aggressive uterine cancer since 2011 agreed to be a part of the case as a plaintiff alongside oncologist Katherine Morris and physician Aroop Mangali in 2012 after receiving her diagnosis of terminal illness. Riggs is now in remission, a fact she knows is hardly a guarantee of survival. She says she wants to be able to end her life on her own terms with the help of her doctor if the going gets too tough.
"I didn’t want to implicate anyone else in a potential crime,” says Riggs, a Santa Fe resident since 2009. “I thought, ‘Well, I guess I would need to prepare to do this all on my own, in isolation, while I still can, without any help.’”
The idea was not appealing.
“People who are using this option have a disease going on that can be rough....someone who is using a physician is making a choice about what kind of death they will have,” she says. "Now, they have the involvement of their doctor, their family, their friends, a spiritual leader if they want."
Advocates for doctor aid-in-death say a key factor in a patient's choice is process before death, and that terminally ill patients should have autonomy in decision-making.
“An important point to bring forward,” Kathryn Tucker, director of legal affairs for Compassion & Choices, co-council and attorney in private practice, tells SFR, is that when aid-in-dying is a choice, it improves end of life care for patients. “Doctor’s try harder and know how to treat distressing symptoms so that patients get medical relief.”
The judge's ruling, she says, most closely follows what has happened in Montana. That state asserts that patients have a right to a "dignified death" protected by the state’s constitutional guarantee of privacy and protection.
“The main thing that’s different in New Mexico is that the process will be governed by the physician,” says Tucker. She says patients will be allowed medications, usually in the form of sedatives, that offer the option of achieving a "peaceful death."
Breast cancer patient Natalie Kreupzbr, a resident of Albuquerque, tells SFR the relief of the ruling lies in peace of mind.
“I am ecstatic” she says. “The truth is, everybody who hears the word ‘cancer’ tends to jump to the conclusion that it’s a death sentence. You just do,” says Kreupzbr. A colon cancer survivor, Kreupbzr says before the ruling, she was debating moving to Oregon, where autonomous aid-in-dying options are legal. With the ruling, however, Kreupbzr says she no longer has to think of relocating, “I want to live in New Mexico, and now I know I can live in New Mexico, and die in New Mexico.”