SANTA FE, N.M. — Proposed legislation in New Mexico could legalize assisted suicide in the state and may even allow for the prescription of deadly drugs outside the state via telemedicine and by health care professionals other than physicians.
Deacon Steve Rangel, associate director for the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the bill was disheartening to read.
“In our Catholic faith, we know the dignity of life from conception to natural death,” he told CNA.
“Here, we have an attack on [life]. It’s really disheartening that we even have to be put in this type of position. ... Our driving force has always been to prevent harm and loss of life.”
Deacon Rangel cited several particularly objectionable points in House Bill 90, known as the “Elizabeth Whitefield End of Life Options Act,” including a provision that medical practitioners other than doctors can administer the drugs without ever having examined the patient in person.
He also pointed out that the bill reduces the waiting period for assisted suicide from 15 days to 48 hours.
“We all get down. We’re human beings,” he said. “But at [a patient’s] most vulnerable point, are we going to let them make a life decision like that?”
Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, an international organization with a headquarters in Ontario, told CNA that this assisted-suicide bill jumped out at him as particularly expansive and vague.
“This bill allows nurses and physician assistants to be involved also. So you have this wider group of people who can be involved in the act itself of prescribing,” he told CNA.
The current bill allows for the prescription of assisted-suicide drugs after a health care professional examines a patient via telemedicine.
“A doctor could assess you, or even a nurse, by telemedicine. So you have a terminal condition, supposedly, and this is going to be approved that you can die by assisted suicide — but your interview for this process is done over a screen,” Schadenberg said.
“To me, this is a crazy thing, because we’re talking about life and death.”
The bill includes a provision that makes assisted suicide acceptable if it can be determined that a terminal condition will cause a patient’s death “in the foreseeable future.”
“‘Foreseeable future’ is not defined,” Schadenberg noted. “So it’s wide-open. ... Basically, you can have your interview by telemedicine and die two days later because your terminal condition that you supposedly have might cause your death in the ‘foreseeable future.’”
The bill also removes conscience protections, he said, because although doctors are not required to prescribe the lethal medication, they are mandated to refer the patient to a medical professional who will.
“So if you think it’s wrong to prescribe lethal drugs for a patient, knowing that they’re going to die by assisted suicide, then it must be equally wrong for you to send them to a doctor who’s willing to do that,” Schadenberg said.
In addition, the bill does not clearly define whether residents of states other than New Mexico might be allowed to avail themselves of assisted suicide. It was reported in some publications that the bill lacks a residency requirement completely, meaning patients coming from other states to seek the procedure, so-called “suicide tourism,” could become a reality.
Most assisted-suicide laws, such as Oregon’s, Schadenberg clarified, explicitly state that the patient must be a resident of the state in order to qualify for the procedure.
The New Mexico bill, however, only has an indirect residency requirement under the definition of the word “adult,” which is defined as a resident of the state. But the word “adult” is only mentioned once in the bill, under the proposed form that must be signed to be approved for assisted suicide, he said.
“But even under the wording of this bill, it still seems a very weak way of defining a resident. It’s very awkward.”
Schadenberg said some advocates of assisted suicide are calling for a complete elimination of waiting periods for the procedure.
“We’re talking about life and death,” he said. “Obviously you could be depressed today, and the purpose of the waiting period is not to be onerous and force suffering people to have to live 14 more days. It’s that you might be depressed, and the way to ensure [assisted suicide] is your real will is to create a waiting period. You might be feeling better in two weeks.”
Schadenberg said about 20 states introduced assisted-suicide bills in 2018, but only one state actually passed the measure.
“This is not what you’d call an inevitability,” he said. “The opposition to assisted suicide has been very successful, but the sad reality is that it only takes one state and things look bad. ... New Mexico I’m very concerned about. There’s no question about it.”
Deacon Rangel echoed Schadenberg’s consternation at the bill’s current language, but reiterated that as Catholics the best approach to terminal illness is compassion.
“We align ourselves with Our Lord’s pain and suffering,” Deacon Rangel reflected. “I have a priest friend who has [multiple sclerosis,] and when he’s feeling the most pain, that’s when he offers it up for other people’s intentions. I thought that was so powerful. ... We truly are compassionate for those who are suffering.”
He said his own daughter suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident, resulting in the loss of part of her brain, which has left her cognitively impaired.
“Did she lose some things because of the injury? Absolutely,” he said. “But at the same time, [we gained] so many other blessings. So we look for the blessings in everything in life. ... She loves people, people respond to her, and so if you’d ask me, ‘Is that quality of life?’ I would say: ‘Absolutely.’”
Assisted suicide has been illegal in New Mexico since the 1960s, but doctors have been protected from liability for removing life support from terminally ill patients since 1978.
The New Mexico Supreme Court previously ruled in June 2016 that assisted suicide was not a “fundamental or important right” under the state constitution, after a woman with terminal cancer expressed her wish for “a more peaceful death.” At that time the New Mexico Supreme Court suggested a “robust debate in the legislative and the executive branches of government” to determine if the law needed to be changed.
The states of California, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, plus the District of Columbia, have already legalized assisted suicide.