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Washington v. Glucksberg

Washington Law Challenged

Since its establishment as a U.S. territory in 1854, Washington had a law making it a crime to assist another in committing or attempting to commit suicide. In 1994, a group of doctors and terminally ill patients filed a suit against the state in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington challenging the constitutionality of the law. The district court found that terminally ill patients have a liberty interest protected by the Constitution to commit physician-assisted suicide, and that the Washington law therefore violated the Constitution. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed, and affirmed the district court decision. Washington then appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the decision of the district court and court of appeals.

The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution provides that a state may not deprive a person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Although the Due Process Clause literally reads in terms of the fairness of a procedure used to deprive a person of life, liberty, or property, the Supreme Court has held that the Due Process Clause also protects certain substantive fundamental rights and liberty interests regardless of the fairness of the procedure used to deprive a person of that liberty. This is known as "substantive due process." Thus, the Court has held that the Due Process Clause protects a person's right to: marry; have children; raise children and direct his or her education; marital privacy; use contraception; bodily integrity; and abortion. Also, in the 1990 case Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health, the Supreme Court recognized that a person has a right to refuse lifesaving medical treatment. However, the Court concluded that the Due Process Clause does not protect a person's right to commit physician-assisted suicide.

In determining whether a liberty interest is "fundamental," and thus protected by the Due Process Clause, the Court applies a two-part test. First, the asserted right must have historically been regarded as fundamental, that is, it must be "deeply rooted in [the] Nation's history and tradition." (Quoting Moore v. East Cleveland [1977]) Second, the asserted right must be carefully described and defined. The Court concluded that the asserted right to physician assisted suicide did not meet either of these requirements. With respect to this second requirement, the Court concluded that the right at issue was not the right to die or to determine the time and manner of one's death, as the court of appeals had defined the issue. Rather, the Court looked at the more narrow issue of whether there was a right to commit suicide with another's assistance.

The Court then analyzed whether this right had a historical basis. With respect to the historical question, the Court reasoned that the right to assisted suicide was not rooted in history because almost every state and most democratic nations have laws banning assisted suicide. Further, "for over 700 years, the Anglo-American common-law tradition has punished and otherwise disapproved of both suicide and assisting suicide." Thus, the Court concluded:

The history of the law's treatment of assisted suicide in this country has been and continues to be one of rejection of nearly all efforts to permit it. That being the case, the asserted `right' to assistance in committing suicide is not a fundamental liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause.

The Court also rejected the argument that its earlier decision in the Cruzan case established a right to assisted suicide. The Court reasoned that its decision in Cruzan simply affirmed that a person has a right to refuse unwanted medical treatment. However, that issue is far different from whether a person has the right to assistance in committing suicide. Further, the Court noted that the right to refuse medical treatment differs from the right to assistance in committing suicide because historically a person has had the right to refuse medical treatment. Finally, in Cruzan the Court noted that most states outlawed assisted suicide but the Court did not suggest that such laws were unconstitutional.

Although the justices did not entirely agree on the reasoning, all nine justices agreed that there is no fundamental right to assisted suicide. Thus, the Court's decision left it up to each individual state to determine in what circumstances physician-assisted suicide would or would not be permitted. As the Court concluded its opinion: "Throughout the Nation, Americans are engaged in an earnest and profound debate about the morality, legality, and practicality of physician-assisted suicide. Our holding permits this debate to continue, as it should in a democratic society."

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1995 to PresentWashington v. Glucksberg - Significance, Washington Law Challenged, Jack Kevorkian, Further Readings