ALBUQUERQUE (AP) — A Santa Fe woman with advanced ovarian cancer said Wednesday that she is joining two doctors in their challenge against a decades-old New Mexico law that prohibits physicians from helping terminally ill patients die.
Aja Riggs, 48, is joining a lawsuit that seeks to clarify a state law that makes assisted suicide a felony.
Lawyers on behalf of Riggs and cancer doctors Katherine Morris and Aroop Mangalik intend to argue that the state law does not legally prohibit doctors from ending the lives of terminally ill patients.
According to the lawsuit, the doctors, both of whom work at the University of New Mexico Health Science Center, seek to be allowed to prescribe medication to terminally-ill patients who want to end their lives.
Riggs said she was moved to participate after the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico filed the lawsuit in March.
"If this disease is going to end my life, I don't know if want to go to the end with it," said Riggs, who has undergone aggressive radiation and chemotherapy treatment.
She said doctors have given her a slim chance at surviving the fast-spreading cancer, which was diagnosed by doctors in August.
Currently, New Mexico law states that "whoever commits assisting suicide is guilty of a fourth degree felony." However, attorneys with the ACLU of New Mexico and Compassion & Choices, a Denver-based group that pushes for changes in so-called right-to-die laws, say the lawsuit asks the court to clarify state law to allow doctors to give patients the option of ending their lives.
Opponents call the practice "physician-assisted suicide," while supporters speak of "death with dignity" or "end-of-life choices."
Voters in Oregon and Washington have passed right-to-die laws, while Montana's Supreme Court ruled that the practice of physicians helping terminally-ill patients end their lives could be considered part of medical treatments.
But most other states have adopted laws that call for prison time for those found guilty of the practice.
Nearly 600 terminally-ill patients in Oregon have opted to end their lives since the state law went into effect in 1998, according to state numbers.
In Washington, a total of 135 patents took the option in 2009 and 2010, the state's latest numbers show.
Meanwhile, advocates in Massachusetts say they've cleared the initial signature hurdle to get a bill on the November ballot that would legalize the practice in that state. Doctors in Hawaii say they have unearth a 103-year-old provision in Hawaiian law that allows doctors to aid patients in ending their lives, although the state's attorney general has said the law doesn't allow for the practice.
If New Mexico physicians are allowed to assist terminally-ill patients in ending their lives, doctors say they would prescribe medication that would be taken by patients on their own timetable.
Riggs said if that happens, she still isn't sure that she would go through with taking the medication. "I just want to have the option, and have a control on the ending of my life," she said.
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New Mexico is located in the southwestern region of the U.S. Inhabited by Native American populations for many centuries, New Mexico has also been part of Imperial Spain, part of Mexico, and a U.S. territory.