By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican
A bill the Senate passed Thursday eliminates any repercussions against doctors, nurses and other health care providers who refuse to participate in New Mexico’s medical aid-in-dying law for reasons of conscience.
“This bill simply acknowledges and affirms the right of individuals to object on conscientious reasons to participate in any medical aid in dying, including the refusal to provide information on medical aid in dying to a patient and refusing to refer a patient to someone else willing to assist the patient,” one of the sponsors of Senate Bill 471, Sen. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said.
The proposed amendment to the Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act, a 2021 law that allows terminally ill patients who are of sound mind to take their own lives with the aid of a physician, comes about a year after a Santa Fe doctor and a national association of Christian physicians and health care professionals sued the state over it.
The lawsuit alleges the End-of-Life Options Act as currently written violates the doctors’ First Amendment and other constitutional rights.
“The Act does not define the word ‘participate,’ requires conscientious objectors to facilitate suicide in material ways, and expressly prohibits professional associations like [the Christian Medical & Dental Associations] from taking action to ensure that their members advance — rather than undermine — their mission and message,” the lawsuit states.
Asked by Sen. Gregg Schmedes, R-Tijeras, whether the lawsuit prompted SB 471, Cervantes said he didn’t know whether it was the impetus, “but there’s no doubt that they’re interrelated.”
The amendment makes explicit that health care providers will not be subject to criminal liability, licensing sanctions or other professional disciplinary action for “refusing, for reasons of conscience, to participate in medical aid in dying in any way.”
Schmedes also asked whether the amendment would “remedy” the lawsuit.
Cervantes said he couldn’t answer the question.
“I haven’t communicated with the parties and litigants that this will satisfy them, but this should, certainly in my opinion, address their concerns,” he said. “This recognizes the right of conscience, and my understanding is that’s the fundamental issue in that litigation.”
Schmedes, who pushed unsuccessfully to add similar religious exemptions to a bill the Senate passed earlier this week to protect access to abortion and gender-affirming health care in New Mexico, said the Legislature needs to be “very sensitive” to the issue.
“I would urge members of the body to take these issues seriously,” he said. “I am very concerned that multiple pieces of legislation that either have passed this chamber or are about to pass this chamber are making an identical mistake. And I think that pretty soon, we may be back here with a similar bill addressing different pieces of legislation.”
Cervantes said Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, who sponsored the End-of-Life Options Act, made a number of changes to the original bill based on concerns of conscience.
“Many of you all know I ran into a little bit of issue with members of my clergy in the [Catholic Church] over this bill and other positions that I’ve taken,” said Cervantes, who was denied Communion at his parish church in 2021 after he voted in favor of repealing a half-century-old law that criminalized abortion in New Mexico.
“But it was important for me to represent the interests of those with religious beliefs that are challenged in some respects by this legislation,” he said.
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.