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 executive branches of the state government. (See the full New Mexico Supreme Court decision in Morris v. Brandenburg.)
In January 2017, New Mexico state legislators took up the matter and introduced a pair of aid-in-dying bills, called the New Mexico End of Life Options Act (SB252 in the state senate and HB171 in the house of representatives). State senators voted down their version of the bill, while legislators in the house failed to bring the bill up for a vote, effectively killing it for the 2017 session. If it had passed, the law would have functioned very much like Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, allowing terminally ill patients who met certain requirements to request and use life-ending medication.
Citizen groups are continuing to work to legalize aid in dying in New Mexico. If choice at the end of life is important to you, here are some things you can do:
“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. 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. In any state, you have a right to provide such directions or give any other health care instructions by completing an advance health care directive.
For information about appointing a health care agent and making known your wishes for medical care at the end of life, see the Living Wills & Medical Powers of Attorney section of Nolo.com.
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.