SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Justices with New Mexico's highest court aggressively questioned attorneys Monday in a landmark lawsuit that could decide if the state will join a handful of others in allowing terminally ill patients to end their lives with drugs prescribed by a doctor.
The legal challenge, sparked in 2012 by a Santa Fe woman with advanced cancer, seeks to clarify New Mexico's laws barring physician-assisted suicide.
The practice is legal in five states — California, Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont — and advocates have spurred debate in dozens of other statehouses around the country. So far, they've been unsuccessful.
Laura Schauer Ives, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in New Mexico, told the New Mexico Supreme Court that physician-assisted suicide gives competent patients the "bodily integrity" to end their lives without prolonged suffering.
It's a constitutional right, and doctors should be free to prescribe drugs to patients to humanely end some lives, she said.
"This is not a practice that would harm any state interests," Ives said.
Scott Fuqua, a lawyer representing the New Mexico Attorney General's Office, said the state has no interest in keeping alive someone who is suffering. But he said a decision on the practice should come from lawmakers rather than judges.
"It has real impact on real people," Fuqua said. "It demands legislative attention, not judicial."
It could take the five-member panel weeks to issue a ruling.
Justice Charles Daniels asked whether the concept of a constitutional right to assisted suicide existed when the state's constitution was created more than a century ago.
Ives said the constitution was written in a way that would have allowed physician-assisted suicide, even though the practice wasn't around at the time. She later added the idea of helping terminally ill patients humanely end their lives was still a foreign concept when the state passed an anti-assisted suicide law in the early 1960s.
Justices also pressed Fuqua on the difference between assisted suicide and doctors being allowed to take patients off life support.
Fuqua responded that physician-assisted suicide puts doctors in "second-degree murder territory" since it involves the prescribing of drugs to be used later.
The case began with a court filing from doctors Katherine Morris and Aroop Mangalik and patient Aja Riggs of Santa Fe. They asked a state district judge to determine physicians would not be breaking the law if they wrote prescriptions for competent, terminally ill patients who wanted to end their lives.
Second Judicial District Judge Nan Nash ruled last year that the New Mexico Constitution prohibits the state from depriving a person of life, liberty or property without due process. She also found doctors couldn't be prosecuted under the state's assisted suicide law, which classifies helping with suicide as a fourth-degree felony.
The New Mexico Court of Appeals tossed out Nash's ruling in August, setting up the high court challenge.
The ACLU of New Mexico and the Disability Rights Legal Center are representing the plaintiffs in their appeal before the state's top court.
After Monday's arguments, Riggs told reporters that her cancer was in remission. However, she said it could return and she still wants the option of ending her life.
"I'm glad I could be part of something that is bigger than me," she said. "This case is about choice."
Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras.