ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—Lawyers representing two doctors and a Santa Fe woman with advanced uterine cancer began their opening statement on Wednesday in a case challenging a decades-old New Mexico law that prohibits assisted suicide.

Cancer doctors Katherine Morris and Aroop Mangalik and patient Aja Riggs want a district court judge to clarify the law by ruling physicians who help competent, terminally ill patients end their lives are not in violation of the state's assisted suicide law.

Currently, whoever assists with suicide can be found guilty of a fourth-degree felony under the statute in question.

"This is a case about choice," Laura Schauer Ives, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, told Judge Nan Nash. "The evidence will show this is a safe choice. This is a compassionate choice."

The lawsuit against the state has the support of the New Mexico Psychological Association, the largest organization of professional psychologists in the state. The group filed a brief Tuesday, arguing that assisted suicide and "aid in dying" for terminally ill patients are fundamentally different.

"We believe it is important that the law reflects this distinction so that doctors are not prevented from providing patients with more comfort and control during their dying process," said Rob Schwartz, a University of New Mexico law professor and co-author of the brief.

Kathryn Tucker, director of legal affairs for Compassion & Choices, said there's growing support for physicians to help terminally ill patients who want to end their lives.

Five states already allow patients to seek aid in dying if their condition becomes unbearable, she said.

In his opening statement, defense attorney Scott Fuqua countered that the case is about legal autonomy. The testimony of patients and doctors will be compelling, he said, but the result of "aid in dying" is the same as suicide in that a person's life is being ended and that is a violation of the law crafted by state lawmakers.

There is no evidence that suggests the Legislature took an unconstitutional action, Fuqua said.

The trial in state District Court in Albuquerque was prompted by the lawsuit filed in March 2012 on behalf of plaintiffs by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the Denver-based group Compassion & Choices.

Riggs, a 49-year-old Santa Fe resident who has undergone aggressive radiation and chemotherapy treatment, joined the lawsuit in May 2012. She said she doesn't know if she would go through the process if New Mexico doctors are allowed to assist terminally ill patients in dying, but she wants to at least have the option.

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