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Supreme Court Rulings

In two cases from 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that physician-assisted suicide is not a protected liberty interest under the Constitution. However, the rulings in Vacco v. Quill and Washington v. Glucksberg left the door open for states to permit physician-assisted suicide. Washington v. Glucksberg dealt with the constitutionality of a Washington statute that made it felony for a person to assist in the suicide of another. According to the statute, “A person is guilty of promoting a suicide attempt when he knowingly causes or aids another person to attempt suicide.” Maximum punishment for conviction was five years’ imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. Another statute in Washington, the Natural Death Act, provided, “Withholding or withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment” at a patient’s direction “shall not, for any purpose, constitute a suicide.” A number of physicians and their terminally ill patients brought suit to challenge the constitutionality of the assisted suicide law. These plaintiffs claimed “the existence of a liberty interest protected by the Fourteenth Amendment which extends to a personal choice by a mentally competent, terminally ill adult to commit physician-assisted suicide.”

The district court agreed with the doctors and patients. The court ruled that the law placed an undue burden on the exercise of a constitutionally protected liberty interest. The state appealed the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel reversed the district court. According to that opinion, this country has never recognized a “constitutional right to aid in killing.” However, a subsequent en band hearing before all the judges of the Ninth Circuit resulted in victory for the doctors. According to the en banc decision, “the Constitution encompasses a due process liberty interest in controlling the time and manner of one’s death—that there is, in short, a constitutionally-recognized ‘right to die.'” Furthermore, Washington’s law was unconstitutional, “as applied to terminally ill competent adults who wish to hasten their deaths with medication prescribed by their physicians.”

The state appealed, and the Supreme Court reversed. The opinion, written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, traced the history of assisted suicide. The court noted that few exceptions to the rules against assisted suicide exist anywhere in Western democracies and states. Moreover, the punishment or disapproval of suicide or assisted suicide reaches back more than 700 years. The earliest statute to outlaw assisted suicide came in 1828, but long before that, common law recognized it as a crime. The court noted that advances in medicine and technology have caused many states to reexamine their stances on assisted suicide. For the most part, states have reaffirmed deeply-rooted bans on assisted suicide. To rule in favor of the doctors, the court noted, it would have to “reverse centuries of legal doctrine and practice, and strike down the considered policy choice of almost every State.” Quoting another case, the court recognized that if something has been practiced for two hundred years by common consent, it will “need a strong case for the Fourteenth Amendment to affect it.” The court also noted the danger of allowing policy preferences of the members of the court to subtly transform constitutional law.

Based on the history of assisted suicide laws in this country, the Supreme Court ruled that there is no fundamental liberty interest in a right to assisted suicide that is protected by the due process clause. Moreover, the ban on assisted suicide, as set forth in Washington’s law, was rationally related to legitimate government interests. Those government interests include:

  • To preserve life
  • To prevent suicide
  • To avoid the involvement of third parties and the use of arbitrary, unfair, or undue influence
  • To protect the integrity of the medical profession
  • To avoid future movement toward euthanasia and other abuses

The Supreme Court did not, however, ban assisted suicide. The opinion recognized the right of states to engage “in serious, thoughtful examinations of physician-assisted suicide.”

Inside Supreme Court Rulings