New Mexico physician-assisted suicide case goes to state Supreme Court

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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

The New Mexico Supreme Court will hear a challenge [PDF] to the state’s ban on physician-assisted suicide from the Disability Rights Legal Center, the ACLU of New Mexico, and Compassion and Choices, after an appellate court reversed a lower court decision that would have made the state the fifth to legalize the practice.

“Before the Court is one of the most private, intimate decisions made in a lifetime – how we face our own deaths,” the parties wrote in their petition for Supreme Court review [PDF]. “That decision should be reserved to the individual, not majority vote, informed by our most deeply held values, beliefs, and unique circumstances.”

New Mexico law prohibits people from “deliberately aiding in the taking of a mentally competent, terminally ill person’s own life.”

The plaintiffs sued the state in 2012, on the basis that the law violates the fundamental rights guaranteed under the New Mexico Constitution, specifically the provisions pertaining to “nature, inherent and inalienable rights,” and due process.

Although this argument prevailed at the lower court, the state Court of Appeals, in a divided 2-1 decision, found that the prohibition did not violate these provisions of the New Mexico Constitution, though one of the judges suggested the prohibition may be unconstitutionally vague or violate the state’s equal protection guarantee.

In the petition, the plaintiffs took issue with a number of the majority opinion’s findings.

In particular, the plaintiffs disputed the majority’s reliance on Washington v. Glucksburg, a 1997 Supreme Court ruling that the U.S. Constitution’s Due Process Clause does not guarantee the right for physicians to prescribe lethal medications for terminally ill patients. As the plaintiffs see it, the decision is inapplicable because it left room for states to craft their own laws, and the lawsuit was nonetheless brought under state, not federal, law.

In addition, the plaintiffs honed in on the majority’s suggestion that terminally ill patients “may bring about the end of their own lives by stockpiling morphine lawfully prescribed by a physician and ultimately ingesting a lethal dosage.”

For the plaintiffs, these choices are the equivalent to no choice at all because they do not provide a method for terminally ill patients to “choose a peaceful dignified death.”

“The State’s response to these patients is callous. It suggests they hoard medication and overdose, and the Court of Appeals included that suggestion in detailing end-of-life options,” the brief states. “Though the shadow practice is the only means by which terminally ill patients are able to effectuate a peaceful death, the practice isolates patients who do not want to implicate loved ones and, because medical personnel are involved, it is sometimes ineffective. This essential State cosign to unsupervised overdose is of enormous public concern and presents exceptional circumstances. This cannot stand.”

The DRLC, which runs the End of Life Liberty Project, is one of only a few disability rights groups that publicly supports physician-assisted suicide. Most other major disability rights groups oppose the practice, on the basis that the determination of whether a patient is “terminally ill” is inherently subjective and that the laws incentivize doctors to save money by cutting necessary treatments, among other reasons.