House committee advances bill allowing doctor’s aid in dying

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Legislative hearing

Andrew Oxford / The New Mexican

People line up to speak in favor of House Bill 171, which would change a 1963 state law that made it a fourth-degree felony for anyone to assist in a person’s suicide.

A parent tries to starve herself to death. A cancer patient wonders how long she will have to suffer before the disease destroys her. And across the state, New Mexicans hear the pleas of ailing loved ones to let them die.

Hours of personal stories Friday about sickness, pain, dignity and death moved lawmakers to tears. Then a committee of the House of Representatives voted along party lines to advance a bill that would allow medical professionals to assist terminally ill patients in ending their own lives.

The 4-3 vote came only months after the New Mexico Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in the case of a cancer patient who wanted the option to end her own life with the help of a doctor. The state’s highest court decided New Mexico law does not expressly provide patients the right to medical assistance in dying, and suggested the Legislature should clarify the issue.

House Bill 171, endorsed Friday by the House Health and Human Services Committee, would change a 1963 law that made it a fourth-degree felony for anyone to assist in a person’s suicide. The bill would allow medical professionals to aid in an adult’s death by prescribing lethal drugs, provided that the patient meets certain criteria.

Sponsored by Reps. Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces, and Debbie Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, the bill faces uncertain prospects as it heads to the House Judiciary Committee. Spokesmen for Gov. Susana Martinez have said that she opposes such policies.

Six states allow medical aid in dying. Under McCamley and Armstrong’s bill, a health care provider in New Mexico would have to ensure that a patient is capable of making such a decision on his own, is terminally ill and has not been coerced.

Health care providers would then have to discuss feasible alternatives and the risks of a patient taking a lethal dose of medication. Under the bill, a medical professional would prescribe lethal drugs to the patient. But the person prescribing the drugs could not administer them, so the patient himself would have to ingest the drugs.

Medical professionals and others who assisted a patient in dying would not face criminal penalties. Likewise, practitioners who refused to help a patient end their lives would not be held liable.

Proponents argue the bill would keep government out of a deeply personal decision.

“This is not about suicide,” McCamley told the committee, recounting his own father’s death from a degenerative nerve disease.

McCamley said his father lost the ability to write, drive and talk, going from a walker to a wheelchair to an assisted living center.

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“Disallowing them the ability to make their own choice about the end of their life is disallowing them the choice to have the grace and dignity for how they want to pass,” McCamley said.

But religious groups, including the Catholic Church, have long opposed bills that allow for medical aid in dying.

And in addressing the committee Friday, Allen Sánchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, argued that the bill might not prevent abuse or errors.

“The safeguards aren’t there,” he said.

The three Republicans on the committee voted against the bill, raising similar concerns. They pointed out that the law defines “terminal illness” in part as an illness that “will result in death within a reasonably foreseeable period” but does not include a more explicit timeline.

Unclear is whether the law would apply to patients who wanted to come to New Mexico for medical assistance in dying.

Though the bill would change the law, it would not change conflicting ethical codes of medical organizations that prohibit doctors from assisting a patient in ending their life.

“There is a clear difference of opinion among practitioners,” the New Mexico Medical Board said in an analysis of the bill.

The board has adopted the American Medical Association’s ethical code opposing what it calls physician-assisted suicide, describing the practice as fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as a healer.

But Dr. Katherine Morris, a surgical oncologist at The University of New Mexico, said doctors are doing harm when they must deny patients help in dying.

“We are coercing patients into an end of life they do not want,” Morris said.

Laws for assisted suicide are on the books in California, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. And physicians can assist patients in ending their own lives in Montana, contingent on a ruling by the state Supreme Court.

But the procedure is rarely used, said Morris, who sat alongside Aja Riggs, the patient whose New Mexico Supreme Court case has driven the debate over this issue in recent years.

Riggs wanted the option to end her life as she underwent treatment for uterine cancer.

But with her cancer in remission, Riggs said, death no longer feels as close as it once did.

Riggs said she still wants the option of ending her own life.

“I have not made peace,” she said, “with being denied the choice of a legal, compassionate medical option.”

Contact Andrew Oxford at (505) 986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.

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