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Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide - Legal Challenges

court life ruled supreme

Proponents of legalization mounted a significant effort to have laws against assisted suicide declared unconstitutional, hoping to garner an "assisted suicide" Roe v. Wade (410 U.S. 113 (1973)) that would settle the issue nationally, as Roe did with abortion. They were unsuccessful. In Washington v. Glucksburg (117 S. Ct. 2258 (1997), the Supreme Court justices voted 9–0 that "the asserted 'right' to assistance in committing suicide is not a fundamental liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause [of the Fourteenth Amendment]." The decision also emphasized that state laws banning assisted suicide were consistent expressions of the individual states' commitment to protecting all human life.

In the closely associated case of Vacco v. Quill (117 S. Ct. 2293 (1997)), the Supreme Court ruled against assisted-suicide advocates who had argued that New York's law proscribing assisted suicide violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. They argued that since it is legal for terminally ill persons to refuse life-sustaining medical treatment and die immediately but illegal for terminally ill people who do not require life support to secure immediate death through physician-assisted suicide, New York violated its constitutional obligation to treat similarly situated people equally. In rejecting the argument, the Supreme Court ruled that the New York law actually treated similarly situated people alike: all patients are permitted to refuse unwanted treatment and none are allowed legal access to assisted suicide. The Court also ruled that there was a significant and rational distinction between refusing life-sustaining treatment and seeking assisted suicide. In the former circumstance, the doctor's intention may be to simply stop performing useless procedures when a patient will not benefit, while in assisted suicide, the doctor must without a doubt intend for the patient's death.

Both sides claimed victory in the Court's two rulings. Opponents were relieved that assisted suicide would not be "imposed" nationally by judicial fiat. Proponents took heart that several concurring opinions muddied the waters and seemed to indicate that the issue could be brought back to the courts for further review if a case of a patient with truly irremediable suffering were presented. Proponents also claimed that the Court's decision freed the states to experiment with laws concerning the end of life, perhaps including assisted suicide, although opponents pointed out that the issue of a state's right to pass a law legalizing assisted suicide had not been before the Court.

There have been at least three attempts to invalidate state laws proscribing assisted suicide based on privacy provisions contained in state constitutions. A lawsuit challenging Alaska's proscription is currently pending in that state's courts (Sampson v. State of Alaska, No. 3 AN–98–11288 CIV). A California Court of Appeals decision refused to permit a terminally ill man to have legal assistance with suicide so that his body could be cryogenically preserved. The most notable case to decide this issue in state courts was Krischer v. Florida (697 So.2d, 97 (1997)), in which the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the state's assisted-suicide prohibition did not violate the state constitution's guarantee of privacy.

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