New Mexico's Dangerous, Discriminatory Assisted Suicide Law | Opinion

In the midst of a pandemic, the New Mexico state legislature ignored the needs of its constituents—many of whom lack basics like reliable electricity and running water, never mind basic medical care—in favor of passing a dangerous and discriminatory assisted suicide law. This and similar policies in other states have proven the failure of proponents to safeguard the people most susceptible to abuse, mistakes and coercion.

Beyond the fact that every supposed "safeguard" in the New Mexico law and others like it is unenforceable and circumventable, legislators in the state have allowed medical professionals with less training to facilitate patients' suicide. Doctors themselves are not always accurate in their prognostications, and patients could throw away good months, years or even decades over a best-guess mistake. Patients like Jeannette Hall, who would have killed herself with assisted suicide but is, thankfully, still alive decades later.

New Mexico legislators have endangered vulnerable patients by allowing even physician assistants and nurse practitioners to determine that a requesting patient has six months or less to live and provide them with suicide drugs. Medicare clearly prohibits nurse practitioners and physician assistants from certifying a terminal prognosis of six months when it comes to hospice eligibility. Suicide cannot be undone, and no matter who is determining eligibility, medical professionals make mistakes.

The New Mexico assisted suicide law also includes a sleight of hand that may prove disastrous. It defines "adult" as "a resident of the state who is eighteen years of age or older," but repeatedly uses the term "individual" rather than "adult" to delineate who is eligible for assisted suicide. Notably, the term "individual" is not defined, meaning that assisted suicide could be made available to non-residents and even children, potentially making New Mexico not only a destination for irresponsible suicide "tourism," but also the abuse of minors.

New Mexico state capitol
The New Mexico State Capitol, the only round state capitol in the United States, is informally known as 'the Roundhouse'. Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Defenders of this law claim it provides patients with greater autonomy. This is a gross distortion, especially since there is no universal right to care. People with disabilities and people of color face a myriad of health challenges—and now amid a pandemic, they experience even greater disadvantages due to lack of access to health care. It is no wonder that groups like the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Diné (Navajo) Hataałii Association, the Navajo Nation and most disability rights organizations oppose this dangerous public policy based on their concerns over inequities in health care.

—whether they be poor, people with disabilities, indigenous or people of color. Many in New Mexico don't have access to top-quality medical care, and with societal and financial pressures and elder abuse on the rise, vulnerable people could be pressured to choose assisted suicide rather than getting the care they deserve.

Assisted suicide laws invite elder and disability abuse while granting immunity to all those participating. For example, Michael Freeland, who had experienced acute depression and attempted suicide multiple times over several decades, received the lethal prescription and was left at home with the suicide drugs, even though medical professionals had previously removed all other means of his taking his own life from his home. So too, an elderly dementia patient, Kate Cheney, was referred for the non-required psychiatric evaluation and denied the lethal dose. Then, her daughter shopped around for a doctor until she found one who would say Ms. Cheney had "capacity" to make this life-and-death decision; that same doctor wrote in the report that Ms. Cheney's "choices may be influenced by her family's wishes and her daughter, Erika, may be somewhat coercive."

The New Mexico legislature had a critical chance to address the glaring issues in our health care system that the pandemic exposed. They could have increased access and education for patients, training in palliative and hospice care for medical professionals, expanded home health and personal care aid or family caregiver relief. Equal access to the gold standard of care should be top priority in both policy and medicine. Giving medical professionals immunity to assist in their patients' suicide not only fails to address any of the system's problems, but exacerbates the current disparities. The rest of us can avoid making the same mistake in other states by rejecting dangerous and discriminatory assisted suicide laws.

Matt Valliere, executive director of Patients Rights Action Fund.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.