Recently, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of states considering death with dignity laws. Sometimes called “assisted suicide” or “right to die” initiatives, these laws make it possible for terminally ill patients to use prescribed medication to end their lives peacefully rather than suffering a painful and protracted death.
The catalyst for greater national attention to this issue was 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, a woman diagnosed with terminal brain cancer who moved from California to Oregon to end her life in 2014. Maynard chose Oregon because California had not yet passed its aid-in-dying law, and Oregon was one of just a few states that allow terminally ill patients to legally end their lives.
Maynard’s decision and the resulting publicity spurred many state legislatures to introduce death with dignity bills. In New Mexico, the push for aid in dying began in the state courts in 2013 and was led by two doctors and a woman diagnosed with uterine cancer. The woman, Aja Riggs, had undergone painful chemotherapy and radiation treatments for her cancer and wanted the option of taking medication prescribed by her doctor to end her life if her condition worsened. Riggs and her doctors argued that the state’s statute prohibiting “assisting suicide” should not apply to physicians who prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients.
The case eventually went before the New Mexico Supreme Court. On June 30, 2016, the court ruled that aid in dying was not a “fundamental right” under the New Mexico constitution and that the issue should be decided by the legislative and executives branches of the state government. (See the full New Mexico Supreme Court decision in Morris v. Brandenburg.)
In December 2018, New Mexico state legislators took up the matter and introduced a pair of aid-in-dying bills, called the Elizabeth Whitefield End of Life Options Act (SB153 in the state senate and HB90 in the house of representatives), that would allow terminally ill patients who meet certain requirements to request life-ending medication.
This article first clarifies some confusing language related to death with dignity laws and then sets out some basics of New Mexico’s proposed law.
“Death with dignity” is one of the most commonly accepted phrases describing the process by which a terminally ill person ingests prescribed medication to hasten death. Many people still think of this process as “assisted suicide” or “physician assisted suicide.” However, proponents of death with dignity argue that the term “suicide” doesn’t apply to terminally ill people who would prefer to live but, facing certain death within months, choose a more gentle way of dying
Increasingly, health organizations are turning away from the term “suicide” to describe a terminally ill patient’s choice to reduce the suffering of an inevitable death. The phrase “aid in dying” is becoming a more accepted way to refer to this process.
You may also see the phrase “right to die” used in place of “death with dignity.” However, “right to die” is more accurately used in the context of directing one’s own medical care—that is, refusing life-sustaining treatment such as a respirator or feeding tubes when permanently unconscious or close to death. You can provide your own health care directions by completing a New Mexico living will and durable power of attorney for health care. (See the end of this article for more information.)
New Mexico’s proposed law is modeled closely on Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, which took effect in 1997. If New Mexico’s law passes, a patient requesting aid-in-dying medication will have to be:
A patient who meets the requirements above will be prescribed aid-in-dying medication only if:
To use the medication, the patient must be able to ingest it on their own. A doctor or other person who administers the lethal medication may face criminal charges.
You can read the full text of Elizabeth Whitefield End of Life Options Act on the New Mexico legislature’s website.
To find out more about the history and current status of death with dignity laws in the United States, visit the website of the Death With Dignity National Center.
For information about appointing a health care agent and making known your own wishes for medical care at the end of life, see the Living Wills & Medical Powers of Attorney section of Nolo.com.Updated 12/27/2018