Disability advocates weigh in on New Mexico assisted suicide case

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Graphic of the state flag of New Mexico. The shape of New Mexico in deep yello with a red cross with a circle.

News from New Mexico

A coalition of disability advocacy groups last month filed an amicus brief in support of the New Mexico attorney general’s appeal from a state court decision that would make the state the fifth to legalize physician-assisted suicide.

“As long as people with disabilities are treated as unwelcome and costly burdens on society, assisted suicide is not voluntary, but is a forced “choice,” states the August 22 amicus brief.

New Mexico law prohibits “deliberately aiding in the taking of a mentally competent, terminally ill person’s own life.” In 2012, the ACLU of New Mexico and Compassion and Choices filed a lawsuit challenging the prohibition on the grounds that it violates the New Mexico Constitution.

In January 2014, Judge Nan Nash ruled in their favor, finding that the right of terminally ill, mentally competent patients to have doctors end their lives is fundamental under the New Mexico Constitution, and therefore, the prohibition was unconstitutional in that it imposed an undue burden on this right.

“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?,” Judge Nash wrote in the decision.

Although the debate over assisted suicide laws, commonly called Death with Dignity laws, is often framed as a debate between social liberals and conservatives, many disability rights groups publicly oppose assisted suicide laws and have been instrumental in defeating some recent steps at legalizing such measures.

As a starting point, the advocacy groups dispute the contention that phyiscian-assisted suicide is a compassionate act.

“Although pain (or the fear of pain) is often cited as the primary reason for enacting assisted suicide laws, doctors actually report that they issue lethal prescriptions because of patients’ ‘loss of autonomy,’ and ‘feelings of being a burden,’ and that ‘[p]atients’ interest in physician-assisted suicide appeared to be more a function of psychological distress and social factors than physical factors,” the brief states.

While not disputing that patients have fundamental rights to refuse or withdraw from life support under the New Mexico and U.S. constitutions, the disability advocacy groups argue that the recognition of a fundamental right to physician-assisted suicide creates a slippery slope toward such actions being used against non-terminal patients, or through lethal injunctions instead of medications, or by non-physicians.

In addition, they argue that for-profit health care inherently incentivizes physicians to promote the use of assisted suicide techniques.

“In the context of our current healthcare system, with profit motives of insurance and managed care companies, and financial and other pressures on family members and individuals, the risks of subtle and even blatant coercion are great,” the amicus brief states.

Moreover, the disability advocates argue that the legalization of assisted suicide would deny terminal patients the benefits of the state’s suicide prevention laws, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Finally, they dispute the contention that a patient can objectively be defined as a terminal patient, or that the law should incentivize suicide as a “rational” act.

“When a person with a disability states a desire to die, nondisabled people believe the request is reasonable because they project their own biases and believe that living with a severe disability is a life of dependency, indignity and helplessness; in short, worse than death,” the amicus brief states.

Assisted suicide is legal in Oregon, Washington State, Montana and Vermont.

The amicus brief is signed by Not Dead Yet, ADAPT, the American Association of People with Disabilities, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, the National Council on Independent Living, and the United Spinal Association.