LAW | A challenge to New Mexico’s physician-assisted suicide law aims to protect doctors’ conscience rights
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Like every medical doctor licensed to practice in the United States, Mark Lacy took an oath to preserve life, not end it. Thirty-nine years later, the 66-year-old New Mexico doctor, a Christian, finds himself threatened with loss of his license for refusing to comply with the state’s physician-assisted suicide law.
A lawsuit filed in December by Lacy and the Christian Medical & Dental Associations targets a 2021 New Mexico law, the Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act. The new law not only decriminalizes physician-assisted suicide but requires nonparticipating doctors to promote the practice by telling terminally ill patients suicide is an option and referring them to doctors willing to help them carry it out.
Attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom are litigating Lacy’s case and a similar one in California, where a court in September 2022 ruled in favor of doctors with conscientious objections to assisted suicide. ADF’s Mark Lippelmann said that laws in both states are particularly unconscionable because they require doctors to facilitate a practice they see as unethical, violating constitutional guarantees of free speech and free exercise of religion.
“If one doctor is not willing to pull the trigger, they must put the patient in front of another doctor who will,” Lippelmann said. “So they are required to speak in a way that makes a fatal connection that may not have happened otherwise.”
That’s the problem, says Lacy, who argues the law pushes physicians to sacrifice medical care for an easy—and final—exit. “Having observed firsthand that terminally ill patients often experience severe pain or distress, we see very dramatic changes in their disposition once their distress is remedied,” Lacy told the Washington Stand.
Another problem is the New Mexico law’s vague definition of“terminally ill.” Lippelmann said it is often difficult for doctors to know when or whether a patient will die. They are therefore left guessing as to which patients the law requires them to inform of the assisted suicide option.
Gregg Schmedes, an Albuquerque doctor who also serves as a New Mexico senator, does not expect revisions to the law in the near future. Schmedes lobbied against the bill and introduced several amendments—all shot down by the Democrat-controlled Legislature. “It requires us to initiate the conversation, even if the patient has no interest and does not want to talk about it,” Schmedes told me. “And that puts the physician in a coercing role.”
To date, 10 states and the District of Columbia have legalized physician-assisted suicide—even though the American Medical Association Code of Medical Ethics continues to bar the practice as “fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer.”
Lippelmann says Lacy’s case calls into question the morality of laws that encourage death. That includes Canada’s “medical assistance in dying” act, a 2016 law allowing physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill (and soon, possibly also for the mentally ill). In 2021, 10,000 Canadians died under the law.
“We are seeing in Canada in particular what happens when you unlock Pandora’s box and start advertising and promoting it,” Lippelmann said. “We have people that are vulnerable and can be manipulated by their family or the government to end their lives.”
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