This story was originally published by Searchlight New Mexico, an nonprofit investigative news organization, and is published here as part of an ongoing collaboration with The Paper.
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Glenn Buckland doesn’t expect to live much beyond March.
The 56-year-old small-business owner from Rio Rancho was diagnosed with plasma cell leukemia in April 2019 and chose to stop chemotherapy last fall.
“It got to a place where I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t get up … without being in excruciating pain. So I made the decision to stop because I’m just kind of indifferent to the outcome of it. I want to be present and enjoy what’s going on right now. I’m not chasing life.”
When that’s no longer possible, Buckland would like some help, or at least some choice in the matter.
If House Bill 47 passes the New Mexico State Legislature, he will have that choice. The Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act would allow doctors to prescribe medication to “bring about a peaceful death” for patients with a “disease or condition that is incurable and irreversible and that … will result in death within six months.”
Advocates of the legislation are quick to differentiate it from suicide. They describe it as a legitimate choice made by someone who knows that the end of life is near and wants to leave the world on his or her own terms, without excess suffering.
The Catholic Church disagrees, viewing the distinction as nothing more than semantic trickery.
Efforts to pass an end-of-life options act in New Mexico began in earnest five years ago, after the state Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that the right to medical aid in dying isn’t guaranteed by New Mexico’s constitution.
The bill now making its way through the Roundhouse is the third legislative effort since then to secure that right. A similar proposal was narrowly defeated in 2017, and a 2019 version was pulled before it received a full floor vote. If this one passes, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has signaled that she will sign it.
Currently, eight other states plus the District of Columbia have legalized medical aid in dying, and Montana’s courts have ruled that doctors there aren’t forbidden from providing it. Oregon, the earliest adopter, reported that in 2019 188 people chose to end their lives under its Death with Dignity Act. The figure accounted for about one-half of one percent of all deaths in the state that year.
As written, the New Mexico legislation requires an imminent terminal diagnosis. In addition the patient must be of sound mind, make the request voluntarily, and be able to self-administer the medication. The proposed law provides a waiting period of 48 hours before the prescription can be filled; once it is, patients are free to choose to take or not take it. For those who do, the cause of death will be listed as “underlying terminal illness.”
“Medical aid in dying is nothing more than a euphemism. You’re killing people. You can wrap it up any nice way you like, but you’re taking a life. From my point of view, life is a gift from God, and it’s a gift to be cherished and nourished, and even when it gets difficult it still has tremendous value,” said John C. Wester, Archbishop of Santa Fe.
“I knew when I stopped chemo, I’m going to have a period of time until the time I die when I’m going to feel great, because the chemo will have left my body. So I’m going to have three to six months of golf, or travel, when I’m going to live life—and then when I go, I go,” said Buckland.
“My care circle trusted me in my judgment and supports me in whatever I choose. … I can’t even express what it feels like to have all of this love that comes to me. … It’s this outpouring of love. And for a guy who went his whole life feeling awkward and out of place, and I’ve never had a lot of friends, to experience all this at the age of 56, it’s transformational. It’s a gift of the cancer experience. I believe people can choose how they experience things, and this is how I choose to experience it.”
So much of this is about people having some sense of control in their lives, and I think the statistics from states that have aid-in-dying options show that … that those who seek it out often don’t even use it. But the conversation about it is so valuable because it feels like giving people options so they know that they have some control,” said Dr. Karin Thron, medical director of Ambercare Hospice in Santa Fe.
Poem Swentzell of Santa Clara Pueblo and Santa Fe, social worker with experience in hospice care settings
By the end of [my mom’s] life she needed 24/7 care. … I know she wanted aid in dying, but it wasn’t available … At the end, she was in a coma for three days. And that last night she had extreme agitation. I had never seen anything like what she was going through, so when she finally passed, it was just like Thank goodness …
One thing I feel strongly about the New Mexico bill is that there are protections in place. I know it’s not for everybody. I don’t want anybody who doesn’t want this to be worried that this is going to happen to them … But as a hospice social worker, I heard some very distressing stories of people who really wanted to have the choice and ended up doing some rather desperate things [to end their lives] because they couldn’t legally do it. … It’s about choice, about what is important to you as an individual, how it is that you want to move yourself through this world, from this world.
Gary Housepian of Albuquerque, chief executive officer of Disability Rights New Mexico
For the disability rights organizations, you have to understand that when there’s been a history of people with disabilities’ lives not being valued, when they’ve been mistreated, when they’ve been utilized for experimental procedures, it creates a history of fear.
Our main concerns with this legislation as it’s written have been alleviated. We wanted to make sure that end of life was imminent … that if there were any question of diminished capacity or mental illness that would impair their ability to make a decision, that there would be a current evaluation done. … We wanted to make sure there was data collected on this.
But the main things were to make sure that people were informed, that it was voluntary and that [death] was imminent. Disability rights organizations are in favor of self-determination … and end-of-life decisions and options, they should have those just like anybody else … They shouldn’t have to needlessly suffer when that isn’t what they want. So we feel like it’s best to take a neutral position on this, because we do understand the fears.
Debbie Armstrong, New Mexico state representative, District 17 (Albuquerque), House sponsor of the Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act
I’ve been in health care for 45 years … in hospice and geriatrics, including doing end-of-life caregiving and witnessing death for a number of family and friends. I’ve seen great suffering, and found myself, as much as I hated to say goodbye, with a sense of relief that they were no longer suffering.
I also have an adult daughter who’s had cancer since she was a teenager, that’s now advanced Stage 4 … and I do not want her to suffer. So it’s now even more personal, that she have the option when the time comes to die with dignity and with control over the end of her life … She is a supporter. Her father also has cancer; it’s in remission now, but he contemplated moving to another state that had [legal aid in dying] — that’s an act of desperation, leaving all your family and support to go somewhere where you can control the end of your days.
I’ve followed the Oregon law for a long time, and the reports from there … Many people get [the medication] and don’t even take it. Just the fact that they get it and have control relieves that extreme anxiety that adds to the suffering. We call this the End-of-Life Options Act, not an aid-in-dying act, because it requires that the provider explains what all the options are so that people are not just making a rash decision out of suffering that could be managed. Studies also show that where this is legal, there is greater use of hospice, because doctors have to talk to you about it and people are asking about it, so there is, I think, a better quality of care overall at the end of life when you have all the options on the table. … We’ve got a wide coalition statewide … I think we’re going to have the votes.
Photo Courtesy Michael Benanav/Searchlight New Mexico