State Rep. Deborah Armstrong, Courtesy Facebook

The New Mexico Senate passed a controversial bill Monday that would allow terminally ill patients who are of sound mind to take their own lives with the aid of a physician.

The bill will soon head to the desk of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is expected to sign the measure into law once the state House of Representatives, which already has approved the bill, concurs with a number of amendments.

“The governor has been a lifelong advocate for seniors and their independence, as well as for the importance of dignity and respect in making choices about one’s own health and treatment,” Nora Meyers Sackett, Lujan Grisham’s press secretary, wrote in an email.

Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, described the measure as “compassion for the suffering” and said nine other states and the District of Columbia have passed similar legislation.

“A 2020 Gallup poll indicates 74 percent of Americans support an end-of-life option,” Stefanics said at the end of a 2½-hour debate. “This bill is to ease suffering, and what it has done is it has increased the use of palliative care and hospice care in the states that have a law similar to this.”

The Senate passed the measure on a 24-17 vote, with three Democrats, Pete Campos of Las Vegas, George Muñoz of Gallup and Benny Shendo Jr. of Jemez Pueblo, joining with Republicans in opposition.

“I understand that some people cannot vote for this,” Stefanics said before the vote.

Republicans raised various concerns about the measure, from the moral dilemma doctors may face to the possibility that older people would want to take their lives due to feeling like they were a burden on their families.

“My concern is that when we legalize this practice, as we’ve seen in other states, the overall suicide rate goes up,” said Sen. Gregg Schmedes, R-Tijeras. “When I use the word ‘suicide,’ I don’t use it flippantly. Suicide’s the intentional taking of your life.”

Though Stefanics initially said “it is explicit that medical aid-in-dying is not suicide,” she then said “physicians, nurses and loved ones are protected against prosecution for assisting suicide.”

To qualify for aid-in-dying under the bill, a patient would have to be an adult, a New Mexico resident and mentally capable of making an informed decision.

“They must have a terminal illness diagnosis of no more than six months,” Stefanics said. “That person must also — after going through the requirements — must be able to-self administer the medication for a peaceful death.”

The bill includes a 48-hour waiting period from the time a prescription is written to the time it’s filled, which Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo, said was too short.

“I don’t believe that is the right thing we should do as a body,” he told Stefanics. “But I applaud you for for standing up here and putting this bill forward because regardless of how the vote goes, regardless who votes yes and who votes no, this is an issue that touches all of us and will touch all of us, I imagine, at some point in time.”

Stefanics said the 48-hour waiting period ensures “timely access for critically ill and suffering patients.”

In a statement issued after the vote, Rep. Debbie Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, one of the lead sponsors of the bill, said everyone deserves “to live life the way we choose, and when facing a fatal prognosis, to also pass away in a peaceful manner.”

The bill, known as the Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act, is named after a judge who died of cancer in 2018 after advocating for such a law. Though senators approved an amendment that changes the short title of the bill to the End-of-Life Options Act to keep in line with the way laws are written, they said her name would continue to be memorialized in statute.

“Elizabeth Whitefield was a constituent of mine,” said an emotional Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque. “I think she would agree that the important thing is to have this bill move forward, whether her name’s on it or not.”

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