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In New Mexico on January 13, 2014, a trial-court-level judge rendered a decision that a physician could not be prosecuted on a charge of assisting in a suicide because the right of a terminally ill patient to his or her doctor’s assistance in death is a fundamental right with which the state cannot interfere.

But the New Mexico decision is law, at this time, only in the judicial district surrounding Albuquerque. It is likely to be appealed, thus it remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court of New Mexico will approve the Morris decision and apply it statewide.

The court decision does not determine exactly what conditions have to prevail in order for the doctor to be protected from criminal prosecution. Under the Death With Dignity laws of Oregon, Washington and Vermont, the rules are explicit and clear and ensure the doctor cannot be prosecuted, disciplined or sued.

Because doctors in Montana and New Mexico do not have the protections of a DWD law like that of Oregon, Washington, and Vermont, few doctors will participate in assisted dying. Nonetheless, the decision is a valuable step in moving our society in the right direction. It might help move the New Mexico legislature toward enacting a DWD law.

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