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Patients' Rights - Right To Die

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Right to Die

A number of cases have addressed the right to refuse life-sustaining medical treatment. Broadly speaking, under certain circumstances a person may have a right to refuse life-sustaining medical treatment or to have life-sustaining treatment withdrawn. On the one side in these cases is the patient's interest in autonomy, privacy, and bodily integrity. This side must be balanced against the state's traditional interests in the preservation of life, prevention of suicide, protection of dependents, and the protection of the integrity of the medical profession.

In IN RE QUINLAN, 355 A.2d 647 (1976), the New Jersey Supreme Court permitted withdrawal of life-support measures for a woman in a persistent vegetative state, although her condition was stable and her life expectancy stretched years into the future. Many of the emotional issues the country struggles with in the early 2000s were either a direct result of or were influenced by this case, including living wills and other advance medical directives, the right to refuse unwanted treatment, and physician-assisted suicide.

The first U.S. Supreme Court decision addressing the difficult question regarding the removal of life support was Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health, 497 U.S. 261, 110 S. Ct. 2841, 111 L. Ed. 2d 224 (1990). Cruzan involved a young woman rendered permanently comatose after a car accident. Her parents petitioned to have her feeding tube removed. The Supreme Court ruled that the evidence needed to be clear and convincing that the young woman had explicitly authorized the termination of treatment prior to becoming incompetent. The Court ruled that the evidence had not been clear and convincing, but upon remand to the state court the family presented new testimony that was deemed clear and convincing. The young woman died 12 days after her feeding tube was removed.

The Supreme Court decided two right-todie cases in 1997, Quill v. Vacco, 521 U.S. 793, 117 S.Ct. 2293, 138 L.Ed.2d 834 (1997), and WASHINGTON V. GLUCKSBERG, 521 U.S. 702, 117 S.Ct. 2258, 138 L.Ed.2d 772 (1997). In Glucksberg, the appellate courts in New York and Washington had struck down laws banning physician-assisted suicide as violations of EQUAL PROTECTION and DUE PROCESS, respectively. The Supreme Court reversed both decisions, finding no constitutional right to assisted suicide, thus upholding states' power to ban the practice.

Though both cases were considered together, Glucksberg was the key right-to-die decision. Dr. Harold Glucksberg and three other physicians sought a DECLARATORY JUDGMENT that the state of Washington's law prohibiting assisted suicide was unconstitutional as applied to terminally ill, mentally competent adults. The Supreme Court voted unanimously to sustain the Washington law, though five of the nine justices filed concurring opinions in Quill and Glucksberg. Chief Justice WILLIAM REHNQUIST, writing for the Court, based much of his analysis on historical and legal traditions. The fact that most western democracies make it a crime to assist a suicide was backed up by over 700 years of Anglo-American common-law tradition that has punished or disapproved of suicide or assisting suicide. This "deeply rooted"opposition to assisted suicides had been reaffirmed by the Washington legislature in 1975 when the current prohibition had been enacted and again in 1979 when it passed a Natural Death Act. This law declared that the refusal or withdrawal of treatment did not constitute suicide, but it explicitly stated that the act did not authorize EUTHANASIA.

The doctors had argued that the law violated the SUBSTANTIVE DUE PROCESS component of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT. Unlike procedural due process which focuses on whether the right steps have been taken in a legal matter, substantive due process looks to fundamental rights that are implicit in the amendment. For the Court to recognize a fundamental liberty, the liberty must be deeply rooted in U.S. history and it must be carefully described. The Court rejected this argument because U.S. history has not recognized a "right to die" and therefore it is not a fundamental right. Employing the RATIONAL BASIS TEST of constitutional review, the Court concluded that the law was "rationally related to legitimate government interests" and thus passed constitutional muster.

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