New Mexico doctors can help terminal patients die, judge says

Posted at 5:41 AM, Jan 14, 2014
and last updated 2014-01-14 07:41:16-05

By Lateef Mungin

(CNN) — In a decision sure to cause debate, a New Mexico judge has ruled that terminally ill, mentally competent patients have the right to get a doctor to end their lives.

The landmark decision Monday by New Mexico Second Judicial District Judge Nan Nash came after a two-day trial and could make New Mexico the fifth state to allow doctors to prescribe fatal prescriptions to terminal patients.

The ACLU and Compassion & Choices, an end-of-life choice advocacy group, filed the lawsuit on behalf of two New Mexico doctors and cancer patient Aja Riggs.

The judge was asked to consider whether the doctors should be allowed to write prescriptions for a terminally ill cancer patient who wanted to use drugs to end her life.

“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,” the judge wrote. “If decisions made in the shadow of one’s imminent death regarding how they and their loved ones will face that death are not fundamental and at the core of these constitutional guarantees, than what decisions are?”

New Mexico’s Attorney General’s office said it was analyzing the decision to see if it would file an appeal.

Years of debate

Most states ban assisted suicide, but aid-in-dying is permitted in Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont. The practice has been hotly-debated since it was first adopted in Oregon in 1997.

But Riggs, the 50-year-old terminally ill cancer patient named in the New Mexico lawsuit, says she’s glad she now has a choice.

“I am really pleased that the court has recognized that terminally ill patients should have more choice in the manner of their death,” said Riggs.

The cancer is currently is in remission, but Riggs says statistically her cancer is likely to return.

“Most Americans want to die peacefully at home, surrounded by loved ones, not die in agony in a hospital,” she said. “I feel the same way. If my cancer returns and I face intolerable suffering, I want the option to cut it short, and to die peacefully at home.”

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