Assisted Suicide Laws of New Mexico

The current state of the law in New Mexico with respect to physician assisted suicide is that terminally ill New Mexicans do not have a constitutionally protected right to procure a doctor’s help to end their lives.

Recently, the New Mexico Supreme Court decided the case Morris v. Brandenburg which was first filed in 2012 by Aja Riggs, a Santa Fe woman who had been battling stage 3 uterine cancer. Ms. Riggs, joined by her doctors, sought a state District Court ruling that would allow doctors to help mentally competent, terminally ill adults end their lives without fear of criminal prosecution.

Ms. Riggs and her doctors, represented by the the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that a 1963 state law prohibiting “physician-assisted suicide” was unconstitutional.

The District Court ruled in Riggs’ favor in 2014, finding physician assisted suicide analogous to a type of medical treatment. But then-state Attorney General Gary King, appealed the ruling to the New Mexico Court of Appeals, which decided 3-2 in 2015 to reject the District Court’s ruling.

The three-member appeals panel concluded that the District Court had erred in concluding that “aid in dying is a fundamental liberty interest.”

Judge Timothy Garcia of New Mexico’s Court of Appeals noted that, “At its core, aid in dying challenges the longstanding and historic interest in the protection of life until its natural end as well as the equally longstanding prohibition against assisting another in hastening that process…[T]his treasured right to life is not only considered sacred under the common law but is also recognized as an inalienable right, even for those condemned to death.”

Ms. Riggs’ case then went to New Mexico’s Supreme Court where the question presented was, “whether a mentally competent, terminally ill patient has a constitutional right to have a willing physician, consistent with accepted medical practices, prescribe a safe medication that the patient may self-administer for the purpose of peacefully ending the patient’s life.”

In a 5-0 decision, the justices upheld the appeals court decision which ruled that the District Court Judge Nan Nash had erred in 2014 when she struck down the 1963 New Mexico Suicide Act which prevented, and protected, the state’s citizens from assisted suicide.

Justice Edward L. Chavez, writing the opinion, acknowledged the “magnitude and importance of the very personal desire of a terminally ill patient to decide how to safely and peacefully exit a painful and debilitating life.”

Yet the Court’s ultimate position was that, “Although the State does not have a legitimate interest in preserving a painful and debilitating life that will imminently come to an end, the State does have a legitimate interest in providing positive protections to ensure that a terminally ill patient’s end-of-life decision is informed, independent, and procedurally safe.  More specifically, the State has legitimate interests in (1) protecting the integrity and ethics of the medical profession; (2) protecting vulnerable groups—including the poor, the elderly, and disabled persons—from the risk of subtle coercion and undue influence in end-of-life situations, including pressures associated with the substantial financial burden of end of-life health care costs; and (3) protecting against voluntary or involuntary euthanasia because if physician aid in dying is a constitutional right, it must be made available to everyone, even when a duly appointed surrogate makes the decision, and even when the patient is unable to self-administer the life-ending medication.”

Finally, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that there was not “an absolute and fundamental constitutional right to a physician’s aid in dying” and that the 1963 New Mexico Suicide Act was not unconstitutional on its face or as applied to the petitioners in this case.

For more information on the legalities of assisted suicide contact the attorneys at the Lightning Legal Group today. We stay current on the law in order to assist you with it. Schedule a free consultation by calling 505-247-2390.




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