A bill to allow medical aid in dying is headed for a vote in the New Mexico House of Representatives after a committee of lawmakers on Wednesday tweaked the legislation, requiring a physician to be included among the two health care professionals needed to sign off on a terminally ill patient’s decision to end their life. House Bill 90 has prompted some of the most emotional discussions of the legislative session, raising issues of life, death and the government’s role in deeply personal medical decisions. The bill also has prompted several rounds of amendments by lawmakers weighing exactly how the process should work for patients seeking such a choice. Under what is known as the End of Life Options Act, a terminally ill patient who is mentally competent and has only six months to live could ask a prescribing health care provider for drugs that would allow him to end his own life. The patient would have to speak with a health care provider about alternatives, such as further treatment, and make the request in writing with witnesses.
A legislative committee decided Monday that medical professionals would have to determine a patient has no more than six months to live before prescribing drugs that would help the patient end his or her own life. By tweaking the bill to give it a time frame, lawmakers who support the measure hope to add New Mexico to a short list of states that permit medical assistance in dying. Critics had raised concerns about exactly which patients would qualify under House Bill 90. It was originally written to allow medical aid in dying for patients diagnosed with a terminal illness and expected to die in the foreseeable future. Other states with similar laws limit medical aid in dying to patients only expected to live for only a particular period.
Elizabeth Whitefield walked the halls of the state Capitol a couple of years ago, urging lawmakers to pass a bill that would let her choose when and how to end a long struggle with cancer. The disease, she told one committee, had stolen everything from her — the ability to work, to eat, to drink. The retired judge from Albuquerque was blunt: She expected death would be slow and painful. “Don’t let me die without dignity,” she said in pushing for legislation that would allow medical professionals to prescribe terminally ill patients lethal drugs to end their own lives. The state Senate voted down the bill.
The state Senate on Wednesday night defeated a bill that would have legalized assisted suicide for terminally ill patients. In a 22-20 vote, seven Democrats joined 15 Republicans to stop the measure. Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, sponsored Senate Bill 252 to allow people expected to die within six months to obtain a prescription for drugs meant to end their own lives. In addition, a patient would have to be deemed mentally competent by two doctors. The bill called for a mandatory 48-hour waiting period between the time the prescription was written and filled.
Several Republican members of the state House Judiciary Committee signaled late last week that they could support a bill allowing terminally ill patients to end their own lives. But they raised concerns about whether the measure would provide enough safeguards for patients. The sponsor, Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, agreed during a committee hearing Friday to rewrite sections of House Bill 171 to address some of those concerns. She is expected to present a revised bill to the committee next week. HB 171 would change a 1963 law that makes it a fourth-degree felony for anyone to assist in a person’s suicide and would allow medical professionals to prescribe lethal drugs to patients who meet certain criteria.
Emotional and personal stories filled a legislative hearing room Friday morning before lawmakers voted on party lines to pass a bill to allow aid in dying. The House Health and Human Services Committee voted in favor of HB 171, which would allow terminally ill patients the choice to end their own lives through a lethal dose of prescribed medication. Before the vote, several lawmakers were in tears when discussing personal stories about the issue. Committee Chair Debbie Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, told the committee she cared for four friends and family members as they approached death. Armstrong recounted sleeping at the foot of her friend’s bed, waking every few hours to administer pain medication.
Michael McCamley liked to plan. It was part of his job in the U.S. Army and according to his son, state Rep. Bill McCamley of Dona Ana County, that instinct to plan for the unexpected extended to family matters, including death. In 2010, doctors diagnosed the retired lieutenant colonel with a rare, terminal disease similar to ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. After discussing it with his family, the elder McCamley decided to fill out an advance directive stating that he was not to be kept alive artificially if and when that time came. “Everyone knew what the situation was and what his decision was,” Rep. McCamley said.
The New Mexico Supreme Court heard oral arguments on whether or not the state should allow some medical patients a right to “aid in dying” on Monday morning. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, represented by private attorney Laura Schauer Ives, argued in favor of allowing terminally ill patients, who are deemed mentally competent, the right to seek medication from physicians that would end their respective lives. In a written statement from the ACLU-NM, Schauer Ives said a patient’s right to “aid in dying” is “a fundamental right under our state constitution.”
“As we await the court’s final opinion on this issue, our thoughts are with the many New Mexicans living with terminal illness who are watching this case to see if they will have access to aid in dying if or when they need it,” Schauer Ives said. Scott Fuqua, who represented the New Mexico Attorney General’s office, argued that it should be the Legislature, not the courts, who decides whether it is legal for a patient to end their own life in some circumstances. Fuqua told justices the first question the court should address is whether or not it is “a fundamental right” for a terminally ill patient to end his or her life.
California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a controversial and high-profile bill allowing the terminally ill to end their own lives, meaning the country’s most populous state will become the next state to allow the practice. Until a few months ago, New Mexico was the fifth such state, but the state Court of Appeals reversed a lower court decision that struck down a decades-old ban on medically assisted suicide. Now, the state Supreme Court is poised to hear oral arguments in the case later this month. The California law goes into effect in 2016; a Supreme Court decision could decide if New Mexico’s constitution requires a right to “aid-in-dying” before then. “I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain,” Brown wrote in a signing statement.
The New Mexico Supreme Court will rule on whether there is a right to “aid in dying” in New Mexico or not. Oral arguments will take place on October 26, in an expedited timeline. Decisions can typically take weeks or months afterward, and ruling from the bench and following up at a later date with a written opinion is extremely unlikely in such a case such as this. The Supreme Court set the date, including earlier dates for briefs and answer briefs to be sent to the court, on Monday. At issue is whether it is legal for physicians to aid terminally ill, mentally capable patients in choosing to end their life.