The Right to Die
On June 26, 1997, the United States Supreme Court issued two opinions regarding a patient’s right to die, in particular by means of physician-assisted suicide: Washington v. Glucksberg and Vacco v. Quill . Both cases revolved around the question of whether a state statute prohibiting a person to aid another in the commission of a suicide was unconstitutional, with the Vacco decision virtually mirroring that of Washington . In Washington , the petitioners contested a WA statute, which states that a person “who knowingly causes or aids another person to attempt suicide is guilty of felony of promoting suicide attempt.”1Though questioned at to its constitutionality, the Supreme Court held that the WA statute was not violative of the Due Process Clause under the 14th Amendment.2The Supreme Court looked to the history, legal traditions, and practices of the U.S. courts to determine the state
1 Washington v. Glucksberg , 521 U.S. 702, 702 - 736 (1997).
2Id. at 702.
of public opinion on physician-assisted suicide.3After all, “the primary and most reliable indication of [a national] consensus is...the pattern of enacted law.”4
The Court rationalized that in almost every state – not to mention almost every western democracy – it is established law that assisting another to commit suicide is a crime.5 Suicide has been met with condemnation for hundreds of years and, assuredly, so has assisting another in the commission of suicide. This is due to a longstanding commitment by the judiciary to protect and preserve all human life.6
Though public opinion about suicide itself has changed constantly over the years, assisting suicide has always been consistently condemned.7 Because this condemnation is so entrenched in U.S. jurisprudence, the Constitution (specially, the Due Process Clause) has never been interpreted to provide a person with any inherent right to die. To the contrary, the furthest
3Id. at 710.
4 Washington v. Glucksberg , 521 U.S. 702, 711 (1997) (citing
Stanford v. Kentucky , 492 U.S. 361, 373 (1989)).
5Id. at 711.
7Id. at 719.
the courts will extend a liberty of this nature is to grant people the right to refuse unwanted lifesaving medical treatment.8
The Supreme Court in Washington not only asserts that the right to assistance in committing suicide is not a fundamental liberty, but it further states that this liberty cannot be granted to patients because the government retains a legitimate interest in imposing an assisted-suicide ban.9 There are six state interests in particular that govern the assisted- suicide ban: a government’s interest in preserving life, preventing suicide, avoiding the involvement of third parties and use of arbitrary, unfair, and undue influence, protecting family members and loved ones, protecting the integrity of the medical profession, and avoiding future movement toward euthanasia and other abuses. These interests parallel those set out by the SC in the Vacco case.10 Ultimately, the State has an “unqualified interest in the preservation of human
8Id. at 720 – 721.