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New Mexico judge affirms right to 'aid in dying'

Aja Riggs, 50, thought a lot about dying after she was diagnosed with uterine cancer.

She endured surgery in October 2011, then underwent aggressive chemotherapy that made her feel as if her skin was burning. She was constantly tired. Then doctors found a second tumor, which they treated with two different types of radiation.

"It was a pretty darn rough winter, actually," said Riggs of Santa Fe, N.M. "I thought to myself, I don't know if I want to go all the way to the end with a death from cancer." She considered "what I needed to do if I would like to perhaps have a more peaceful and gentle death."

Now, a New Mexico judge has ruled that terminally ill patients like Riggs have the right to "aid in dying" under the state constitution. "Such deaths are not considered 'suicide' under New Mexico's assisted suicide statute," ruled Judge Nan G. Nash of the 2nd District Court in Albuquerque last week.

The state's assisted suicide law classifies helping with suicide as a fourth-degree felony.

Aid in dying refers to doctors prescribing a fatal dose of drugs so patients can "achieve a peaceful death and thereby avoid further suffering," Nash wrote.

"This court cannot envision a right more fundamental, more private or more integral to the liberty, safety and happiness of a New Mexican than the right of a competent, terminally ill patient to choose aid in dying," the judge wrote in a 14-page ruling.

Riggs became a plaintiff after hearing about the case in spring 2012, she said. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and Compassion & Choices, an end-of-life choice advocacy group, had filed suit on behalf of two New Mexico doctors, Katherine Morris and Aroop Mangalik. Riggs is the only patient in the case.

The defendants, Bernalillo County Dist. Atty. Kari Brandenburg and New Mexico Atty. Gen. Gary King, argued that New Mexico's assisted suicide law was consistent with the state constitution.

In their motion to dismiss the lawsuit, they wrote, "As plaintiffs describe it, the provision of 'aid in dying' is unquestionably assisted suicide.... Calling assisted suicide 'aid in dying' does not make the conduct so defined any less an assisted suicide."

Riggs and the other plaintiffs dispute that.

"Patients who choose aid in dying find the suggestion that they are committing 'suicide' deeply offensive, stigmatizing and inaccurate," said Sean Crowley, media relations manager at Compassion & Choices.

Laura Schauer Ives, legal director of the ACLU of New Mexico, said the organization "believes it is a basic fundamental right for a terminally ill patient to make this decision for themselves at the end of their life."

The New Mexico attorney general's office is deciding whether to appeal.

Opponents to Nash's ruling include the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, citing both "religious and moral grounds."

"This [ruling] places the right to die in the hands of a second person who has to make a judgment about you ... and that's riddled with ethical problems," said Allen Sanchez, executive director of the conference.

The bishops hope the state will appeal, he said.

In her ruling, Nash cited laws in Oregon, Washington and Vermont that permit aid in dying. She also cited a Montana Supreme Court decision allowing it, and noted that Hawaii had no law against assisted suicide.

"In those states, there is no uncertainty in the law and the practice has developed as one of the standard-of-care options for mentally competent, terminally ill patients at the end of life," Nash wrote.

Riggs sees the lawsuit as a chance to spare others from agonizing choices and agonizing deaths.

"I didn't want anybody else to have the feeling that I had of needing to choose between suffering and dying in isolation or in fear," she said. "I don't think anyone should be required to suffer at the end of their lives."

With her cancer in remission, Riggs is in Texas on a "no regrets remission trip" around the U.S.

If her cancer returns, she isn't sure what she will do. "There's no way to anticipate what I might decide at the end of my life," she said. "But I want to have the choice."

saba.hamedy@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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