SANTA FE, N.M. — An appeals court in New Mexico has overturned a lower court ruling that would have allowed physician assisted suicide in the state.
“At its core, aid in dying challenges the longstanding and historic interest in the protection of life until its natural end as well as the equally longstanding prohibition against assisting another in hastening that process,” the majority ruling from the New Mexico Court of Appeals, written by Judge Timothy Garcia, reads.
“This treasured right to life is not only considered sacred under the common law but is also recognized as an inalienable right, even for those condemned to death,” he said.
The court analyzed the U.S. Constitution and case law, but found no reason to believe that a “fundamental right” to die on one’s own terms exists.
“We are not persuaded by Plaintiffs’ position that a modern desire to hasten death under the rubric of medical privacy can be inferred to take priority over the express fundamental interest in life,” it concluded. “Any development of the importance that society may eventually attribute to dying with autonomy and dignity remains inferential and secondary to life…”
The case began last year as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit on behalf of now 50-year-old Aja Riggs, who is fighting uterine cancer, as well as two University of New Mexico doctors who have an interest in assisting terminally-ill patients in ending their lives. The entities sought for the courts to declare that a state law banning assisted suicide did not apply to physicians who prescribe lethal doses of medication to the terminally ill.
In January 2014, Bernalillo County District Court Judge Nan Nash declared that ailing residents had a “fundamental right” to choose their own death.
“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,” she wrote.
But the case was appealed to the New Mexico Court of Appeals, which heard oral argument in the matter this past January. According to local television station KOB4, Riggs spoke to the court, arguing for autonomy in death.
“I think people ought to be able to make the choice on their own terms,” she stated, “not to have somebody do something to them when they’re in that extreme pain. That should be avoided. ”
But the state contended that allowing assisted suicide creates a slippery slope and opined that the matter is best left up to the state legislature.
On Tuesday, the court agreed with the state—with the exception of dissenting Judge Linda Vanzi—and overturned the lower court’s ruling that declared the issue a fundamental right.
“Although the United States Supreme Court appears engaged in an effort to integrate its constitutional jurisprudence, … it is our view that we should continue to be very careful when considering new constitutional interests and remain reluctant to deviate from United States Supreme Court determinations of what are, and what are not, fundamental constitutional rights,” it said.
The ACLU plans to appeal the ruling to the New Mexico Supreme Court.