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Terminally Ill Have Right to 'Aid in Dying,' N.M. Court Rules

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

Terminally ill patients in New Mexico have the constitutional right to obtain "aid in dying," allowing a fatal dose of drugs to be administered to end their lives and suffering, a state court has affirmed.

This ruling could make New Mexico the fifth state in the nation to allow doctors to provide lethal doses to long-suffering patients, and may protect doctors from prosecution, reports The New York Times.

Will this decision open the door to a constitutional right to assisted suicide?

N.M. Judge Recognizes Right to Choose Aid in Death

The ruling was filed Monday in a state district court in New Mexico's Bernalillo County. Judge Nan G. Nash presided over a case involving two doctors who wished to avoid criminal prosecution for administering "dying aid" to Aja Riggs, a 49-year-old woman who was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 2011.

And without the court's help, New Mexico's assisted suicide law, which makes it a fourth degree felony to "deliberately aid[] another in the taking of his own life," would put these doctors in prison.

Judge Nash agreed that this criminal law applied to Riggs' doctors, but that Riggs' fundamental rights would be violated if it prevented her from receiving aid in dying.

It's not immediately clear, however, if Nash's ruling applies just to Bernalillo County or statewide, the Times reports.

Fundamental Rights vs. State Law

New Mexico's assisted suicide law was passed more than 50 years ago, in 1963. But since then, Judge Nash opined, the state has shown its desire to respect "end of life choices" with new laws. This included the ability of patients to have advance healthcare directives which may withhold care in order to hasten death.

More importantly, New Mexico's constitution -- like the U.S. Constitution -- guarantees due process of the law, which protects persons from the deprivation of life, liberty, and property. It also guarantees New Mexico citizens the "rights of enjoying ... life and liberty ... and of seeking and obtaining safety and happiness."

Judge Nash's decision affirms that choosing aid in dying for terminally ill patients is a fundamental right. Laws that affect fundamental rights are evaluated under strict scrutiny, meaning they must be narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state interest. Under that test, the New Mexico assisted suicide law failed in the face of terminally ill patients seeking aid to die.

In an earlier case from 1997, Washington v. Glucksberg, the U.S. Supreme Court did not agree that the right to aid in dying was protected by the U.S. Constitution. But state courts like New Mexico's are free to expand freedoms above and beyond the scope of the federal law.

According to the Times, the New Mexico attorney general's office is reviewing Nash's ruling and could potentially file an appeal with New Mexico's Supreme Court.

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