Developments in Physician-Aided Dying
Since Oregon adopted its “Death with Dignity Act” 20 years ago, four other states have followed with similar laws or court action: Washington, Vermont, Montana and California. Last year, legislatures in about two dozen states, including Nebraska, debated the issue.
In Colorado, voters may see a ballot initiative on physician-aided dying in November. Proponents are collecting signatures according to an article in the Denver Post. Supporters of Colorado “death with dignity” initiative have already raised $5 million. It’s not a slam-dunk however. The article notes that there is opposition to the proponents efforts to place the initiative on the ballot. Legislation proposed in Colorado failed previously.
In a related development, on June 30, 2016, the New Mexico Supreme Court issued its ruling in Morris v. Brandenburg, a physician-aided dying case that raided the question whether there is a constitutional right to physician assistance in dying. In a thought-provoking opinion, the court noted several instances in which physicians are permitted legally to hasten death of a patient: A physician who withdraws life-sustaining treatment from a patient, at the patient’s direction and in compliance with the Uniform Health-Care Decisions Act is immune from criminal liability for such actions. And a physician who administers pain medication to a patient in compliance with the New Mexico Pain Relief Act, even if doing so hastens the patient’s death, is also immune from criminal liability. The court said that “we decline to hold that there is an absolute and fundamental constitutional right to a physician’s aid in dying and conclude that Section 30-2-4 is not unconstitutional on its face or as applied to Petitioners in this case.” The court relied heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Washington v. Glucksberg and found no specific reasons under the NM Constitution to depart from that precedent since physician-aided dying is not a fundamental right.