NM’s hard-fought aid-in-dying law should remain as is

BY ALBUQUERQUE JOURNAL EDITORIAL BOARD  
PUBLISHED: WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 21ST, 2022 AT 12:02AM
UPDATED: WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 21ST, 2022 AT 12:15AM

Despite the near-miraculous capacity of modern medicine to prolong life, it can’t stop the inevitability of death nor the indignities that come with end-of-life struggles.

Or as the old saying goes, “None of us gets out of this alive.” The mortality rate for human beings is 100%.

That means we all have a stake in New Mexico’s hard-won law establishing end-of-life options. For the terminally ill, there’s no greater peace of mind than knowing they have an alternative to a slow and agonizing death.

Before Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the New Mexico Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act in April 2021, terminally ill New Mexicans sometimes turned to grim methods to end their lives when the pain of their condition became too great to bear.

Debate over HB 47 was among the most emotional and intense for years at the Legislature, drawing terminally ill patients and their families to the Capitol.

Their testimony — stories of pain, suffering, gruesome choices, suicide and attempted suicide — surely helped secure the law’s passage. New Mexico became the 10th state and 11th U.S. jurisdiction to allow medical aid in dying when the law went into effect on June 18, 2021.

Now the constitutionality of the law is being challenged. Last week a local physician and a Christian doctors association filed a lawsuit, alleging the medical aid-in-dying law violates the First Amendment rights of doctors.

When lawmakers passed the law, they took pains to address concerns of opponents. The entire end-of-life autonomy movement “received a crushing blow” when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in 2016 “that it was the role of the legislature, not the courts, to decide ways in which the state would allow physicians to end patients’ suffering,” according to Compassion and Choices New Mexico, which spearheaded passage of the law.

The Legislature responded with a law that allows terminally ill New Mexicans to seek a doctor’s help to end their life. It includes a provision stating that no health care provider who objects as a matter of conscience can be required to participate “under any circumstance.”

The law also prohibits disciplining a provider for a refusal to participate.

Those caveats seem like ample protection for caregivers, but the plaintiffs are seizing on a provision in the law that providers shall inform terminally ill patients of “all reasonable options.”

“New Mexico is unlawfully compelling physicians to speak a certain message about assisted suicide, even if they object for reasons of conscience or faith,” said Mark Lippelmann, attorney for the plaintiffs and senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, an advocacy group.

How hard is it for a doctor to tell a patient, “I don’t believe suicide is the answer and I can’t be a part of it, but you have a right to know your options and I can refer you to another physician.”

Many supporters of the legislation dispute the description of assisted suicide. Under the law, the patient must be terminally ill, expected to die within six months, have the mental capacity to make the decision — a critical safeguard — and the ability to self-administer the medication to end their life.

New Mexico physicians who want no part of this process could make it clear to patients with signs or in-take documentation that they do not provide aid-in-dying options for terminally ill patients, but will refer them to physicians who do.

Our state Constitution guarantees us the right to seek and obtain happiness and the Legislature has confirmed that the guarantee extends to end-of-life choices.

It would be a shame for this right to become unraveled over the objections of a few absolutists.

About 120 patients have used the law this year — slightly more men than women, according to statistics recorded by the state of New Mexico. That’s 120 people who may have suffered needlessly without the law.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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