New Mexico Lawmakers Weighing Physician-Assisted Death Bill06:48
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New Mexico could become the eighth state to allow physician-assisted death for the terminally ill. (1662222/Pixabay)
New Mexico could become the eighth state to allow physician-assisted death for the terminally ill. (1662222/Pixabay)

New Mexico could become the eighth state to allow physician-assisted death for the terminally ill, as lawmakers consider an aid-in-dying bill.

About 20 years ago, a similar law went into effect in Oregon. At the time, University of New Mexico School of Law professor Robert Schwartz was concerned with the bill's ethics and gray areas.

"I was concerned about how they would play out," Schwartz tells Here & Now's Peter O’Dowd. "But we have many years of experience — now 20 years in Oregon, many years in Washington, now some years in California and elsewhere, eight jurisdictions that allow aid in dying — and we can see that none of these worries have in fact come to fruition."

Many of the worries now, he says, aren't being based in fact. While it was wise to move slowly to implement the law in Oregon when it was first introduced, gathering data along the way, Schwartz says lawmakers should be obliged to use that data now in New Mexico.

"We can see that we really just haven't had the problems that some thought would come with [an] aid in dying statute," he says.

Interview Highlights

On the thinking behind the bill, and how it may get passed

"There are two principles that are extraordinarily important in health care decision-making and in the law around health care decision-making in New Mexico. One of them is a libertarian principle. This is a Western state. The libertarian principles are stronger I think in the Western states by and large, and that's a principle that says that we each individually get to control our lives and make our health care decisions. The state doesn't make those decisions for us.

"The second [principle], which is especially important in New Mexico, is respect for diversity. The Catholic faith believes that this is improper, that it's improper to choose to end your life. Many other religions have very different views, and there were many religious leaders that testified to the New Mexico legislature, and the argument is that in New Mexico at least, we ought to leave that to the individual — again, in consultation with that individual's health care provider — to make the decision.

"The issue was almost resolved a couple of years ago when a bill made it through the House in New Mexico and was stalled in the Senate, where it lost by two votes. So, the real question this year, I think the hardest question will be whether it will succeed in the Senate. It will then go to the governor's desk, and unlike two years ago when the governor would have vetoed it, our new governor will sign the bill this year."

On changes to the bill that stripped references to telemedicine that would have allowed prescribers to approve lethal doses of medicine remotely

"The fear I think that was created was the fear that somebody would make a telephone call to a doctor in some remote place — who that patient had never talked with before — and that patient would end up with a prescription for a lethal medication. And really, that's a fanciful notion. It has never happened. So, rather than have the focus be on the telemedicine that's simply been stripped out of the statute as you said, out of the bill, now normal rules of medical practice will apply."

"The debate is not between whether to take an act which will result in the death of a patient or not to do that. The debate is whether individuals should make that decision for themselves."

Robert Schwartz

On how the bill allows patients to receive lethal drugs two days after they are prescribed

"Generally, of course, the physician has to write the prescription, so the physician is in a position to decide and in fact is required under the statute to decide whether or not the patient really has processed that information. It is true that other states have longer waiting periods. But if you look at the consequences of those waiting periods, you can see that in fact, they don't end up protecting patients decisions. They end up depriving patients of the opportunity to use aid in dying, because human beings don't make the request till the very, very end. And you look for example at California, and at least from what I could see — and I've studied what's happened in California — that between a half and a third of the patients who make the initial request, end up dying during what in California's a 15-day waiting period, because that 15-day [period] often gets drawn out to a much longer period. But even within that 15 days, those patients have waited till the last minute to make the request, and then they find that they have a week or 10 days of terrible suffering, and they don't have access to the medication. And again, they die before they ultimately get that medication.

"So, the hope in New Mexico is that the two days would be an appropriate compromise, that in fact there would be an opportunity to reconsider, that the physician would talk to the patient about reconsidering, but that in fact after two days if that patient really wants that medication, that patient doesn't have to suffer any longer."

On individuals and groups, including the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, who view the bill as a form of euthanasia

"Well, they're simply wrong again in the normal use of the term euthanasia: Euthanasia is an act of one person causing the death of another. Euthanasia is permitted in Canada, in Europe, in Colombia, in South America, but it's not permitted in any of the states in the United States that allow for aid in dying, and it wouldn't be permitted in New Mexico. But I do agree with you. There are some people who believe that this is simply morally wrong, but the debate is not between whether to take an act which will result in the death of a patient or not to do that. The debate is whether individuals should make that decision for themselves, whether competent individuals should make that decision for themselves, or whether the state should make that decision for everyone."


Lynn Menegon produced this interview and Kathleen McKenna edited it for broadcast. Jackson Cote adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on February 1, 2019.

Related:

Peter O'Dowd Twitter Senior Editor, Here & Now
Peter O’Dowd has a hand in most parts of Here & Now — producing and overseeing segments, reporting stories and occasionally filling in as host. He came to Boston from KJZZ in Phoenix.

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