Quality of life matters at the end
Santa Fe New Mexican, December 23, 2022
For the last 18 months, the Elizabeth Whitefield Endof-Life Options Act has provided New Mexicans with a terminal condition who are suffering and want to have some measure of control in hastening their death an additional choice at the end of life.
The bill authorizes terminally ill patients who meet certain other criteria to make the informed decision to end their suffering. I believe strongly that having this option available for patients is itself an enormous benefit to those who desire autonomy and control over their suffering. That is why I am part of End of Life Options New Mexico, a nonprofit organization that exists to provide education and support to all New Mexicans in understanding their options at the end of life, including medical aid in dying.
Our initial organizational efforts have been generously supported by national partners and private donors which have enabled us to train and support a cadre of over 50 volunteers who provide public outreach/education and individual client support through our website (endoflifeoptionsnm.org) and our hotline (505-393-1321).
Our well-trained volunteers include social workers, end-of-life doulas, nurses (both active and retired), and compassionate seniors with invaluable experience in living and dying. In 2022, we have presented to over 60 diverse audiences and responded to more than 280 calls for information or support from patients and their loved ones and from health care providers with questions about the new law. We have also provided or arranged training opportunities for clinicians and hospice agencies about medical aid in dying.
End of Life Options New Mexico maintains ongoing collaborative relationships with providers, agencies and suffering terminal patients as these critical decisions are made. In our best, informal count, there have been over 200 patients who have been able to avail themselves of medical aid in dying since the law went into effect in June 2021. In the vast majority of these cases, the patients have been enrolled in hospice and the prescribing clinicians have been at the bedside.
Our intention has been to help ensure access to medical aid in dying for all of those meeting the stringent criteria and choosing to use it. Because of the thoughtful approach taken by the law and the compassionate clinicians/agencies involved in guiding patients through these difficult decisions, New Mexicans are being well-served.
Unfortunately, not everyone agrees compassionate endof-life options should be available. On Dec. 13, a physician and the Christian Medical and Dental Association filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging certain provisions of the Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act.
The lawsuit does not attack the right of patients to access medical aid in dying at the heart of the bill. But it challenges provisions of the law that require doctors to inform patients of the availability of medical aid in dying, and to refer those patients to a willing provider who will offer those services in the event the patient’s primary provider is unable or is unwilling for any reason.
We at End of Life Options New Mexico are saddened and disappointed that any part of the law is being challenged. But we want to make clear that, despite this suit, we intend to continue carrying on with our vital work of providing information and support for all end-of-life options, including medical aid in dying.
As for the lawsuit, I am hopeful that there is a silver lining: regardless of outcome, the suit will bring attention to the basic issue that too many New Mexicans do not understand their right to self-determination and their ability to make informed decisions about their end-oflife care and options, which now include medical aid in dying.
Too much confusion and suffering at the end of life is why the New Mexico bill was enacted. The lawsuit, which does not challenge the patient’s right to medical aid in dying, will allow us to bring this issue to the forefront and reach a wider audience to let New Mexicans know their options.
End of Life Options New Mexico will certainly be involved in the effort to defend our law, while remaining fully focused on our mission to help ensure the quality of life at the end of life for all New Mexicans.
BARAK WOLFF Barak Wolff is board chairman of End of Life Options New Mexico. He is a mostly retired 40-plus-year public health leader in New Mexico who still works for the state Senate when it is in session. He lives in Tesuque with wife, Leah Popp. Barak and Leah are members and supporters of Villages of Santa Fe.