February 17, 2014 | Posted By Bruce White, DO, JD

Last month, a New Mexico trial court judge ruled that a terminally ill patient had a constitutionally protected right to aid in dying from a physician without risking criminal prosecution for assisted suicide. Judge Nan G. Nash of the Second District Court in Albuquerque based her opinion in the New Mexico Constitution: “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.” Thus, the state became the fifth to permit physician-assisted suicide, following Oregon (1997, approved by voter referendum), Washington (2006, approved by voter referendum), Montana (2009, allowed by state supreme court opinion), and Vermont (2013, enacted by the state legislature).

The case was brought by two oncologists (Drs. Katherine Morris and Aroop Mangalik) who asked the court to clarify the state’s assisted suicide law and allow them write a lethal dose of a drug for a 49-year-old patient (Aja Riggs) with advanced uterine cancer. Critical to the case may have been the December trial testimony from the patient: “I don’t want to suffer needlessly at the end.”

The plaintiffs were supported by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the national advocacy group Compassion & Choices. Since it was a trial court decision, it remains uncertain if the decision applies statewide or just in Bernalillo County, where the plaintiffs reside and the court sits. It has been reported that the state attorney general is studying the decision in contemplation of an appeal.

Assisted suicide has been debated for more than a quarter of a century in the United States. The national sparks were stuck keenly with the publication of “It’s Over Debbie” in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1988, the report of Dr. Kevorkian’s participation in the death of Janet Adkins in 1990, and the publication of Dr. Timothy E. Quill’s “Death and Dignity: A Case of Individualized Decision Making” in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1991.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.