'Right-to-die' law trial begins

Posted at: 12/09/2013 9:25 AM
Updated at: 06/30/2016 3:16 PM
By: Erica Zucco, KOB Eyewitness News 4

Wednesday marks the start of a legal battle over the "right to die" in New Mexico.

Currently, assisting with suicide is a fourth degree felony in the state. But an Albuquerque doctor is arguing that "physician aid-in-dying" is not the same thing as "assisted suicide."

While working in Oregon, surgical oncologist Katharine Morris helped two terminally ill patients die on their own terms.

"Voting for the law was very simple in my mind, but when someone actually asked me to be the prescribing physician, it was very difficult. This was someone you really care about and it's a very big decision," Morris said.

But Morris says she felt she was doing it to end suffering and to give her patients a sense of control. So now, while working in New Mexico, she's suing to get patients here the option.

Cancer patient Aja Riggs also signed onto the suit, saying she doesn't want to die of her disease.

"But if the cancer is going to kill me I want the peace of mind of knowing I have some choice at the very end," Riggs said when she signed on in 2012.

Four states – Oregon, Vermont, Washington and Montana – have legalized assisted suicide. But this lawsuit takes a different approach. The plaintiffs argue that "physician aid-in-dying" is completely different than "assisted suicide." This is the first time that specific argument will be made in court.

"It's a collaborative process between the family and friends and has been a peaceful process for patients whereas assisted suicide is a little more akin to putting the gun in someone's hand and helping them pull the trigger," Morris said.

Physicians would prescribe pills to cause death. Patients would have to take the pills themselves.

A judge will begin hearing the case on Wednesday. Attorneys expect that to take a few days. The decision could take weeks or months.