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New Mexico Court of Appeals overturns ruling that allowed assisted suicide

by | Aug 12, 2015

By Dave Andrusko

Judge Timothy Garcia

Judge Timothy Garcia

In January 2014, Bernalillo County District Court Judge Nan Nash struck the decades-old New Mexico law which protected the state’s citizens from assisted suicide.

Ruling in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU of New Mexico and Compassion & Choices, Judge Nash concluded that killing a terminally ill patient with that person’s consent is a “fundamental right” under the state constitution.

On Tuesday, in a 142-page ruling, the New Mexico Court of Appeals handed the “right to die” movement a stinging defeat when it held that Judge Nash had erred in concluding that “aid in dying is a fundamental liberty interest.”

“We are not persuaded by Plaintiffs’ position that a modern desire to hasten death under the rubric of medical privacy can be inferred to take priority over the express fundamental interest in life,” it concluded. “Any development of the importance that society may eventually attribute to dying with autonomy and dignity remains inferential and secondary to life…”

Judge Timothy Garcia added, “At its core, aid in dying challenges the longstanding and historic interest in the protection of life until its natural end as well as the equally longstanding prohibition against assisting another in hastening that process.” Further, “This treasured right to life is not only considered sacred under the common law but is also recognized as an inalienable right, even for those condemned to death.”

The court split 2-1 with Judge Miles Hanisee joining Judge Garcia and Judge Linda Vanzi dissenting. Each wrote a separate opinion.

Judge Nash’s ruling was especially dangerous because “it provided for no ‘safeguards’ whatever, not even a written and witnessed consent by the victim,” according to Jennifer Popik, JD, of NRLC’s Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics. “Nor does it even require that the victim be an adult. A doctor may kill a ‘mentally-competent, terminally ill’ minor without the consent of or even notice to the child’s parent.”

The underlying lawsuit was filed in 2012 by two physicians at the University of New Mexico Hospital – Dr. Katherine Morris and Dr. Aroop Mangalik. They were subsequently joined by patient Aja Riggs, who had been diagnosed with uterine cancer. (Riggs’ cancer is in remission.)

The plaintiffs wanted the courts to declare “that a state law banning assisted suicide did not apply to physicians who prescribe lethal doses of medication to the terminally ill,” according to the Associated Press.

Garcia relied heavily on Glucksberg v. Washington, a unanimous1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision. According to the Albuquerque Journal, Garcia said “it was the only case to directly answer the question ‘whether aid in dying is a constitutional right, fundamental or otherwise.’”

“Despite its share of criticism over the years … no court, federal or state, has held that the concept of death … is rooted within the protections of bodily integrity under the constitution,” Garcia wrote.

The Journal’s Scott Sandlin wrote that in Hanisee’s concurring opinion,

he said the state Constitution incorporated “no right – fundamental or otherwise – to legal narcotics medically prescribed for the sole purpose of causing the immediate death of a patient.” He also said a different branch of government “is vastly better suited to consider and resolve the lawfulness of aid in dying in New Mexico than is the judiciary.”

In her dissent, Judge Vanzi argued that “Other choices and decisions central to personal autonomy have long enjoyed the status of constitutionally protected liberty interests.” She added that the New Mexico state Constitution’s due process clause “affords New Mexico citizens a fundamental, or at least important, liberty right to aid in dying from a willing physician.”

Categories: Assisted Suicide