January 30, 2021

New Mexico bill to allow medical aid in dying clears first committee

Laura Paskus

Some say House Bill 37 would allow “death with dignity.” Others refer to the practice as doctor-assisted suicide.

The controversial measure, which would allow doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients, has failed in previous legislative sessions in New Mexico. The 2021 version received its first committee endorsement Friday but faces some fierce opposition as its makes its way through the Legislature.

Arguments on both sides of the measure touch on sensitive issues: Personal choice. Religious faith. Moral and ethic standards for physicians. Pain, suffering and the inevitability of death.

“It’s gonna be a tough hearing,” said Rep. Deborah Armstrong, an Albuquerque Democrat who cosponsored HB 37, at the start of an hourslong and emotional debate Friday on the proposed Elizabeth Whitfield End-of-Life Options Act.

The House Health and Human Services Committee voted 7-4 to move the bill forward to the House Judiciary Committee.

Opponents of the legislation, named for a former state judge who died of cancer after speaking out in favor of a 2017 version, voiced numerous concerns: Doctors might be mandated to violate the Hippocratic Oath; greedy relatives “might speed up deaths” in an effort to expedite inheritances; the sanctity of human life would no longer be honored.

Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, D-Albuquerque, another cosponsor of HB 47, cried during Friday’s hearing as she recalled being unable to help her cancer-ridden mother manage her pain as she died. Hochman-Vigil argued the bill would provide autonomy and independence for those who choose medical aid in dying over a potentially long-suffering death.

“We must be free to at least be given the choice,” said a woman who testified in support of the bill via Zoom. “Won’t you please give us a choice?”

Ethel Maharg, an opponent, said the bill would simply legalize suicide.

“The end result is the same,” she said. “It is suicide.”

Rep. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena, shed tears as she spoke about her mother suffering from an illness for a decade before a death she described as “miserable.”

“We’ve all walked that road trying to hold it together,” she said.

Still, Gail Armstrong and other Republicans on the committee voted against the bill. 

Rep. Stefani Lord, R-Sandia Park, said she feared some elderly people could be coerced into medical aid in dying without understanding what the practice entails. Lord also questioned what kind of qualifications a health care provider would need to be eligible to determine whether a terminal patient is competent enough to request life-ending medication. 

“I want to try to keep the emotions out of this and go directly into the heart of the words and get into the technicalities of what this bill says,” said Lord, who talked of holding her mother’s hand as she died.

Deborah Armstrong tried twice before — in 2017 and 2019 — to move similar bills through the Legislature. She said in an interview earlier this week there seems to be more momentum building for it this year compared to others.

Nine states and the District of Columbia have enacted so-called right-to-die laws, and several other states, including Arizona, are considering legislation.

Deborah Armstrong said during Friday’s hearing the only thing worse than talking about the difficult issue “is living it.”

Her daughter Erin, who has cancer, also testified in favor of the bill. She said she “desperately” wants to live but is becoming increasingly aware that her 20-year history with the disease is not likely to lead to recovery. 

Her mother’s legislation, she said, could bring her “peace in my own journey in life … and eventual death.”