Santa Fe City Council backs end-of-life bill

September 14, 2018

Santa Fe city councilors on Wednesday night lent their support to state legislation that would allow terminally ill New Mexicans to receive medical aid in dying.

Santa Fe becomes the second city in the state to formally endorse end-of-life aid. The Albuquerque City Council unanimously approved a resolution in May.

Councilors approved a resolution 6-2 after a lengthy and oftentimes emotional discussion about what is sometimes called physician-assisted death, debating whether the controversial practice is, as viewed by advocates, a humane mechanism to empower a suffering person to control the end of their life or, as critics warn, a slippery slope.

Councilors Peter Ives and Chris Rivera voted against it.

The primary sponsor, Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth, recalled watching her father die earlier this year.

“As a witness to his dying process, it became clear to me people should have options to choose medical aid in dying when their suffering becomes unbearable,” Romero-Wirth said.

Seven residents appeared before the council to testify in favor of the resolution, all with evident passion and many recalling personal experiences with ill loved ones.

“It’s all about individual choice,” said Barak Wolff, a longtime public health worker. “There’s no right and there’s no wrong answer. It’s really for each of us to make those decisions that work for us. More people should have the kind of death they wish to have.”

Six spoke against it with equal fervor, underscoring the intensity of public opinion on the issue.

Republican state Rep. Gregg Schmedes of Tijeras, the Legislature’s only physician, urged councilors to consider the “unintended consequences” of the resolution, namely that terminally ill New Mexicans might choose to end their lives prematurely to save their families a financial burden.

“This resolution would support the notion of altruistic suicide,” Schmedes said. “I ask you to consider: Is that something you’re OK with?”

If state lawmakers were to approve end-of-life aid, New Mexico would become the eighth state, plus Washington, D.C., to permit the practice.

The state Legislature has rejected an aid-in-dying proposal before. A bill introduced last year by a handful of Democratic state legislators died in the Senate, where six Democrats broke from party ranks to help minority Republicans defeat it, 22-20.

In 2016, the state Supreme Court denied a high-profile challenge from a terminal cancer patient and a pair of University of New Mexico cancer doctors, affirming that state law does not allow terminally ill patients to manage or choose how to end their lives with a doctor’s help.

The 2017 state proposal, called the End of Life Options Act, would have granted immunity to physicians who assist terminally ill patients seeking to end their lives. Patients who choose to pursue the end-of-life aid must be fully informed of their diagnosis and the feasible alternatives, according to the bill.

State advocates expect the proposal to be brought forward again in the 2019 legislative session.

“There’s a lot of layers to asking for help, knowing where to find help, getting help,” said Nat Dean, a Santa Fe disability advocate. “What is quality of life to one person may not be quality of life to another. But it’s my opinion, with this medical aid in dying proposal, there are enough layers that are safeguards. I think it’s a choice we should have.”

Dean recalled holding her father, who had metastases in his lungs, as he died of the late-stage cancer more than two decades ago.

“You press the button for the pain management, but you have to let the button up for it to refill. He was in so much pain he had a vice grip on that button. When he died, it was very hard to peel his fingers off of it,” she said. “I held him as he suffocated. It was a choice he wanted but it was not available to him.”

The debate in the council chambers, while passionate, remained notably respectful.

“I may not agree with it but I think other people should be able to make the choice,” said Councilor Renee Villarreal.

“While the experience is never an easy one, it can be made less horrific by offering people more choices,” Mayor Alan Webber said. “They don’t have to exercise those choices, of course, but the sense that there is that option available to alleviate unnecessary and pointless suffering is something I fundamentally believe in, having experienced the opposite.”

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