The Associated Press
SANTA FE — The attorney general of New Mexico has said he will likely appeal a ruling in a landmark lawsuit that terminally ill patients can seek a physician’s aid in dying.
Attorney General Gary King was considering the appeal after Santa Fe Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan urged the action during a breakfast with lawmakers, King told the Santa Fe New Mexican in a story Wednesday.
“The thoughts of the Catholic Church are very influential in New Mexico policy,” said King, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.
The case centers on Aja Riggs, 50, of Sante Fe, who was diagnosed with an aggressive uterine cancer and underwent surgery, radiation therapy and six rounds of chemotherapy to battle it. Her cancer is in remission, but doctors expect it to return.
Riggs joined two doctors in filing the lawsuit that made its way to the state’s 2nd Judicial District Court in Albuquerque and prompted the ruling last week by Judge Nan G. Nash that terminally ill patients do have the right to aid in dying, and that “such deaths are not considered ‘suicide’ under New Mexico’s Assisted Suicide Statute.”
“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,” Nash wrote in the ruling.
The decision helps clear the way for such patients to seek their doctors’ help in getting prescription medication if they want to end their lives.
Nash also ruled that doctors who provide such aid could not be prosecuted under the state’s assisted suicide law, which classifies helping with suicide as a felony.
However, the ruling is ambiguous as to whether it applies statewide or just in Bernalillo County.
“I think it’s likely that we will appeal,” King said. “This does seem to be a case where an appeal would be good to get some final determination that applies statewide.”
King said discussions with 2nd District Attorney Kari Brandenburg were ongoing about possible grounds for an appeal. A likely point of legal attack is which arm of government has appropriate jurisdiction to establish physician-assisted suicide policy.
The issue is expected to grow as the country’s massive Baby Boomer generation faces end-of-life questions. Four other states, including Oregon, allow patients to seek aid in dying if their conditions become unbearable.
King and numerous lawmakers attended the 23rd annual New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops legislative breakfast before the Legislature convened Wednesday. Sheehan opened his remarks by asserting the Catholic Church’s opposition to assisted suicide.
“The church teaches that life is sacred from conception through to natural death,” he said.
The archbishop dismissed criticisms that the church’s position is cruel or out of step with the times. “This assisted-suicide thing concerns me,” Sheehan said. “I foresee dangerous consequences.”