WASHINGTON, D.C., January 15, 2014 ( – A New Mexico judge has ruled that under the state Constitution, “competent, terminally ill patient[s]” can “choose aid in dying.”

According to Second Judicial District Judge Nan Nash in a lawsuit brought by two doctors and a woman suffering from uterine cancer, doctors cannot stop mentally sound patients with terminal illnesses from asking for assistance with ending their lives. 

“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,” the judge wrote.

The patient, Aja Riggs, filed the lawsuit with Doctors Katherine Morris and Aroop Mangalik 2012. She is currently in remission, but says she doesn't “want to suffer needlessly at the end” if things take a turn for the worse. 

ACLU New Mexico Director Laura Schauer praised the decision, saying in a public statement that “New Mexicans, both healthy and sick, can now enjoy the comfort and peace of mind” about avoiding “a prolonged, agonized dying process at the end of life.”

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Nash's decision also protects doctors who assist with suicide from prosecution under New Mexico's assisted suicide law. The law classifies suicide assistance as a fourth-degree felony, but Nash wrote that “the Court grants Plaintiffs the requested injunctive relief prohibiting defendants from prosecuting physicians who provide aid in dying to mentally competent, terminally ill patients.” 

The decision also protects the defendants “agents, employees, representatives, and all those acting in concert with [the defendants]” from prosecution. 

The New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops denounced the decision. “As long as there is a chance for human error, we can't have that. You can never reverse the decision you've made. It's the finality of it,” Executive Director Allen Sanchez told Newsmax. “If we are not willing to give that ability to a judge and jury by doing away with the death penalty in New Mexico, we should not be willing to give one doctor and two witnesses that ability.”

National Right to Life Legislative Counsel for the Powell Center for Medical Ethics Jennifer Popik, J.D., concurred, writing in a public statement that Nash's “reasoning contains no logical basis for restricting [New Mexico's assisted suicide law]'s…application to them.” Popik also demanded New Mexico Attorney General Gary King, who has not yet appealed the decision, to appeal soon in order to prevent “the deaths of vulnerable countless older people and those with disabilities.”

Four other states, including Oregon, allow patients to seek aid in dying. The case is backed by the ACLU, Compassion & Choices, and the New Mexico Psychological Association. Nash heard the case in December 2013.