The constitutional right to privacy protects the liberty of people to make certain crucial decisions regarding their well-being without government coercion, intimidation, or interference. Such crucial decisions may concern religious faith, moral values, political affiliation, marriage, procreation, or death. The federal Constitution guarantees the right of individuals to make these decisions according to their own conscience and beliefs. The government is not constitutionally permitted to regulate such deeply personal matters.
The right of privacy protected by the Constitution gained a foothold in GRISWOLD V. CONNECTICUT, 381 U.S. 479, 85 S. Ct. 1678, 14 L. Ed. 2d 510 (1965), in which the Supreme Court struck down a state statute forbidding married adults from using BIRTH CONTROL because the statute violated the sanctity of the marital bedroom. Acknowledging that the Constitution does not mention the word privacy anywhere in its text, the Court held that a general right to privacy may be inferred from the express language of the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as from the interests protected by them.
The Court said that the FIRST AMENDMENT guarantees the right to peaceably assemble, which includes the liberty of any group to associate in private. The THIRD AMENDMENT prohibits the government from quartering soldiers in a private home without the consent of the owner. The FOURTH AMENDMENT forbids the government from performing warrantless and unreasonable searches of any area in which a person maintains a reasonable expectation of privacy. The FIFTH AMENDMENT safeguards the right of criminal suspects to keep secret any incriminating evidence that might help the government obtain a conviction against them. The FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT prevents states from denying its citizens certain fundamental rights that are deemed essential to the concepts of equality or liberty, including the right to autonomy, dignity, and self-determination.
The holding in Griswold was later used to strike down a Massachusetts statute that made illegal the distribution of contraceptives to unmarried persons (Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438, 92 S. Ct. 1029, 31 L. Ed. 2d 349 ). In striking down this law, the Supreme Court articulated a broader view of privacy, stating that all individuals, married or single, enjoy the liberty to make certain intimate personal decisions free from government intrusion, including the decision whether to bear or sire a child. This rationale was extended in ROE V. WADE, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147 (1973), which established the right of women to terminate their pregnancy at any time before the fetus reaches the stage of viability. Roe has subsequently been interpreted to proscribe the government from passing regulations that unduly burden a woman's right to ABORTION.
In Cruzan v. Missouri Department of Health, 497 U.S. 261, 110 S. Ct. 2841, 111 L. Ed. 2d 224 (1990), the Supreme Court again enlarged the constitutional meaning of privacy by declaring that competent patients have a right to refuse life-sustaining medical treatment, including artificial nutrition and hydration. A 1997 Supreme Court case presented the issue of whether competent but terminally ill patients may hasten their death through physician-assisted suicide (WASHINGTON V. GLUCKSBERG, 117 S. Ct. 2258). Representatives for the terminally ill patients argued that the right to physician-assisted suicide represents an essential liberty interest in controlling one of life's most significant decisions, whereas the state of Washington argued that this liberty interest is outweighed by the need to protect vulnerable individuals from irrational, ill-informed, and coerced decisions to end their lives. The Supreme Court held that the right to assistance in committing suicide is not a fundamental liberty interest protected by the DUE PROCESS CLAUSE of the Constitution, and a state's ban on assisted suicide is constitutional.
The constitutional right to privacy does not protect all forms of conduct that are pursued behind closed doors. Adults have no constitutional right to inject intravenous drugs, solicit prostitutes, or view CHILD PORNOGRAPHY. Nor do members of society have a right to be insulated from every potentially offensive activity. For example, the government may not forbid a movie theater from displaying nude scenes on a large outdoor screen that is visible to passing motorists. In Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville, 422 U.S. 205, 95 S. Ct. 2268, 45 L. Ed. 2d 125 (1975),
the Supreme Court said that the First Amendment right to show such films outweighs the privacy interests of offended passersby who can protect their sensitivity by averting their eyes.
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