Washington v. Glucksberg
521 U.S. 702 (1997)

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OCTOBER TERM, 1996

Syllabus

WASHINGTON ET AL. v. GLUCKSBERG ET AL.

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

No. 96-110. Argued January 8, 1997-Decided June 26,1997

It has always been a crime to assist a suicide in the State of Washington.

The State's present law makes "[p]romoting a suicide attempt" a felony, and provides: "A person is guilty of [that crime] when he knowingly causes or aids another person to attempt suicide." Respondents, four Washington physicians who occasionally treat terminally ill, suffering patients, declare that they would assist these patients in ending their lives if not for the State's assisted-suicide ban. They, along with three gravely ill plaintiffs who have since died and a nonprofit organization that counsels people considering physician-assisted suicide, filed this suit against petitioners, the State and its Attorney General, seeking a declaration that the ban is, on its face, unconstitutional. They assert a liberty interest protected by the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause which extends to a personal choice by a mentally competent, terminally ill adult to commit physician-assisted suicide. Relying primarily on Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U. S. 833, and Cruzan v. Director, Mo. Dept. of Health, 497 U. S. 261, the Federal District Court agreed, concluding that Washington's assistedsuicide ban is unconstitutional because it places an undue burden on the exercise of that constitutionally protected liberty interest. The en banc Ninth Circuit affirmed.

Held: Washington's prohibition against "caus[ing]" or "aid[ing]" a suicide does not violate the Due Process Clause. Pp. 710-736.

(a) An examination of our Nation's history, legal traditions, and practices demonstrates that Anglo-American common law has punished or otherwise disapproved of assisting suicide for over 700 years; that rendering such assistance is still a crime in almost every State; that such prohibitions have never contained exceptions for those who were near death; that the prohibitions have in recent years been reexamined and, for the most part, reaffirmed in a number of States; and that the President recently signed the Federal Assisted Suicide Funding Restriction Act of 1997, which prohibits the use of federal funds in support of physician-assisted suicide. Pp. 710-719.

(b) In light of that history, this Court's decisions lead to the conclusion that respondents' asserted "right" to assistance in committing suicide is not a fundamental liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause.


703

The Court's established method of substantive-due-process analysis has two primary features: First, the Court has regularly observed that the Clause specially protects those fundamental rights and liberties which are, objectively, deeply rooted in this Nation's history and tradition. E. g., Moore v. East Cleveland, 431 U. S. 494, 503 (plurality opinion). Second, the Court has required a "careful description" of the asserted fundamental liberty interest. E. g., Reno v. Flores, 507 U. S. 292, 302. The Ninth Circuit's and respondents' various descriptions of the interest here at stake-e. g., a right to "determin[e] the time and manner of one's death," the "right to die," a "liberty to choose how to die," a right to "control of one's final days," "the right to choose a humane, dignified death," and "the liberty to shape death" -run counter to that second requirement. Since the Washington statute prohibits "aid[ing] another person to attempt suicide," the question before the Court is more properly characterized as whether the "liberty" specially protected by the Clause includes a right to commit suicide which itself includes a right to assistance in doing so. This asserted right has no place in our Nation's traditions, given the country's consistent, almost universal, and continuing rejection of the right, even for terminally ill, mentally competent adults. To hold for respondents, the Court would have to reverse centuries of legal doctrine and practice, and strike down the considered policy choice of almost every State. Respondents' contention that the asserted interest is consistent with this Court's substantive-due-process cases, if not with this Nation's history and practice, is unpersuasive. The constitutionally protected right to refuse lifesaving hydration and nutrition that was discussed in Cruzan, supra, at 279, was not simply deduced from abstract concepts of personal autonomy, but was instead grounded in the Nation's history and traditions, given the common-law rule that forced medication was a battery, and the long legal tradition protecting the decision to refuse unwanted medical treatment. And although Casey recognized that many of the rights and liberties protected by the Due Process Clause sound in personal autonomy, 505 U. S., at 852, it does not follow that any and all important, intimate, and personal decisions are so protected, see San Antonio Independent School Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U. S. 1, 33-34. Casey did not suggest otherwise. Pp. 719-728.

(c) The constitutional requirement that Washington's assisted-suicide ban be rationally related to legitimate government interests, see, e. g., Heller v. Doe, 509 U. S. 312, 319-320, is unquestionably met here. These interests include prohibiting intentional killing and preserving human life; preventing the serious public-health problem of suicide, especially among the young, the elderly, and those suffering from untreated pain or from depression or other mental disorders; protecting


704
Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding
A state is permitted under the Fourteenth Amendment to pass a law prohibiting assisted suicide.
Facts
Under the Natural Death Act of 1979, the state of Washington prohibited assisted suicide. The law was challenged by Harold Glucksberg and four other doctors in conjunction with a group of terminally ill individuals and Compassion in Dying, an organization that provided guidance for people considering assisted suicide. They persuaded a federal district court that the right to die was part of the liberty interest protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. Initially disagreeing with the lower court, the Ninth Circuit ultimately affirmed its decision after an en banc review.

Opinions

Majority

  • William Hubbs Rehnquist (Author)
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Antonin Scalia
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • Clarence Thomas

The majority looked back to how it had defined liberty interests protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to determine whether the right to assisted suicide should be included. In Moore v. East Cleveland, the Court had limited liberty interests to those that were deeply rooted in the nation's history. This could not be said of assisted suicide, which until recently had been considered socially improper and remained illegal in many states. The majority even looked back to English common law as a guide for what could be considered traditionally appropriate in the U.S.

Moreoever, Rehnquist pointed out that the state has a compelling interest in preserving the lives of its residents and protecting mentally ill individuals from mistreatment. If the Court recognized the right to die, even in some extreme cases, it would become hard to draw a line separating the permissible use of this right fom the impermissible use of euthanasia by a person or the person's family.

Concurrence

  • Sandra Day O'Connor (Author)
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Stephen G. Breyer

Concurrence

  • John Paul Stevens (Author)

Concurrence

  • David H. Souter (Author)

Concurrence

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Author)

Concurrence

  • Stephen G. Breyer (Author)

Case Commentary

The Court generally seems to view the right to commit suicide, whether by oneself or with the assistance of others, differently from the right to refuse medical treatment, discussed in Cruzan v. Missouri Department of Health. Individuals do have the right to accept a natural death rather than artificially extending their lives, but they do not have the right to affirmatively seek out death when they would naturally remain alive.

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