New law authorizes medical aid in dying in New Mexico

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The Elizabeth M. Whitefield End of Life Options Act will “assist people in getting medical aid in dying if that’s their choice,” said MaryKay Brady of Las Cruces, a board member of the newly formed End of Life Options New Mexico (ELONM) nonprofit, and a longtime advocate.

The act was passed by the New Mexico Legislature during the 2021 session and took effect in June.

Brady said New Mexico is the 11th jurisdiction (nine other states and the District of Columbia) to enact a medical-aid-in-dying law, which she said makes access to end-of-life options easier for terminally ill patients while maintaining safeguards.

“It’s patient care,” Brady said.

The bill was named for the late state District Court Judge Elizabeth M. Whitefield of Albuquerque, who died in August 2018 after an 11-year battle with cancer.

Whitefield testified in support of the End of Life Options Act when it came before the state Legislature in 2017, according to the End of Life Options New Mexico website.

“‘Cancer has stolen everything from me; my ability to work, my ability to eat, my ability to drink,’” she testified. “’Don’t let me die without dignity. I implore you to give me the choice that is right for me.’” The bill did not reach the floor of either house for a vote that year or when it was reintroduced in 2019.

State Sen. Carrie Hamblen, D-Doña Ana, voted in favor of the bill this year exactly one year to the day after the death of her friend, Cheryl Swannack, a Las Cruces artist, producer and community activist who suffered from Parkinson’s Disease. 

“I cast my vote in honor of Cheryl,” Hamblen said.

“Cheryl loved New Mexico. It was her home,” Hamblen said in a Facebook post. “Although she shared a wonderful life with her partner, Nancy, in Washington D.C. … Cheryl would have loved to have taken her last breath in her New Mexico home. But, because we didn’t have any Death with Dignity provisions/laws in the state, she couldn’t.”

Swannack, 73, died March 15, 2020 in Washington, D.C.

The most important reason for passing the act was terminally ill patients’ “decreased ability to enjoy life,” Brady said, including their loss of control over bodily functions. These patients “would like to live,” she said, but “life as you and I enjoy it isn’t possible.”

Under provisions of the act, death results when a patient takes “a specific, compounded drug,” Brady said. He or she is usually asleep within three to five minutes and dies within an hour.

“It’s peaceful. It’s beautiful. It’s a choice,” Brady said.

“No one wants to talk about death and dying, but it’s going to happen,” said Brady, a retired banker who moved to Las Cruces from Deming five years ago. Her mother suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and died in 1992. Her husband, who had “multiple health issues,” died in 2008.

ELONM provides information and helps people plan and take action related to end-of-life options and care, according to https://endoflifeoptionsnm.org/.

“We will help with end-of-life planning,” said Brady, who has already made all those decisions, including putting her medical plan on video and wearing a DNR (do not resuscitate) medic-alert bracelet.

“I looked at it as a gift to my son,” Brady said.

“He knows exactly what my values are,” she said.

“I am passionate about this,” she said. “Anything I can do or say so people don’t have to struggle.”