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New Mexico Court of Appeals strikes down ruling that essentially allowed assisted suicides

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SANTA FE, New Mexico — The New Mexico Court of Appeals on Tuesday struck down a prior Bernalillo County District Court ruling that essentially allowed assisted suicide in the state.

In a split decision, a majority of the court concluded "that aid in dying is not a fundamental liberty interest under the New Mexico Constitution."

A District Court judge previously ruled that a 1963 state statute making assisted suicide a fourth-degree felony in the state was invalid as applied to physicians who administer a lethal dose of medication to a terminally ill patient.

In a 142-page ruling, the Court of Appeals also instructed district courts to stop proceedings in further assisted suicide and right-to-die cases.

The original case surrounded two University of New Mexico doctors who had previously worked with assisted suicide patients who were terminally ill and mentally competent and who wished to help a patient end her life.

The right-to-die issue began with Aja Riggs, a 50-year-old Santa Fe woman battling an aggressive uterine cancer with a prognosis that her time to live was limited.

The American Civil Liberties Union got behind the case and argued that doctors should be legally allowed to assist terminally ill patients to commit suicide and the decision should be between the doctor and patient.

Riggs joined two doctors in filing the lawsuit that made its way to the state's 2nd Judicial District Court in Albuquerque and prompted a ruling in January 2014 by Judge Nan G. Nash that terminally ill patients do have the right to aid in dying and that "such deaths are not considered 'suicide' under New Mexico's Assisted Suicide Statute."

"This court cannot envision a right more fundamental, more private or more integral to the liberty, safety and happiness of a New Mexican than the right of a competent, terminally ill patient to choose aid in dying," Nash wrote in the ruling last year.

That cleared the way for such patients to seek their doctors' help in getting prescription medication if they want to end their lives.

The New Mexico Attorney General's Office argued that the question of whether right-to-die should be allowed in the state should be left up to the Legislature.

The Court of Appeals heard arguments in January regarding the case.

Laura Schauer Ives, an attorney for Riggs and the two doctors, said after Tuesday's ruling that she now plans to appeal the case to the state Supreme Court.

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