Vacco v. Quill
Annotate this Case
521 U.S. 793 (1997)
OCTOBER TERM, 1996
VACCO, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF NEW YORK, ET AL. v. QUILL ET AL.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT
No. 95-1858. Argued January 8, 1997-Decided June 26,1997
In New York, as in most States, it is a crime to aid another to commit or attempt suicide, but patients may refuse even lifesaving medical treatment. Respondent New York physicians assert that, although it would be consistent with the standards of their medical practices to prescribe lethal medication for mentally competent, terminally ill patients who are suffering great pain and desire a doctor's help in taking their own lives, they are deterred from doing so by New York's assisted-suicide ban. They, and three gravely ill patients who have since died, sued the State's Attorney General, claiming that the ban violates the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. The Federal District Court disagreed, but the Second Circuit reversed, holding (1) that New York accords different treatment to those competent, terminally ill persons who wish to hasten their deaths by self-administering prescribed drugs than it does to those who wish to do so by directing the removal of life-support systems, and (2) that this supposed unequal treatment is not rationally related to any legitimate state interests.
Held: New York's prohibition on assisting suicide does not violate the Equal Protection Clause. Pp. 799-809.
(a) The Equal Protection Clause embodies a general rule that States must treat like cases alike but may treat unlike cases accordingly. E. g., Plyler v. Doe, 457 U. S. 202, 216. The New York statutes outlawing assisted suicide neither infringe fundamental rights nor involve suspect classifications, e. g., Washington v. Glucksberg, ante, at 719-728, and are therefore entitled to a strong presumption of validity, Heller v. Doe, 509 U. S. 312, 319. On their faces, neither the assisted-suicide ban nor the law permitting patients to refuse medical treatment treats anyone differently from anyone else or draws any distinctions between persons. Everyone, regardless of physical condition, is entitled, if competent, to refuse unwanted lifesaving medical treatment; no one is permitted to assist a suicide. Generally, laws that apply evenhandedly to all unquestionably comply with equal protection. E. g., New York City Transit Authority v. Beazer, 440 U. S. 568, 587. This Court disagrees with the Second Circuit's submission that ending or refusing lifesaving medical treatment "is nothing more nor less than assisted suicide." The distinc-
tion between letting a patient die and making that patient die is important, logical, rational, and well established: It comports with fundamental legal principles of causation, see, e. g., People v. Kevorkian, 447 Mich. 436, 470-472, 527 N. W. 2d 714, 728, cert. denied, 514 U. S. 1083, and intent, see, e. g., United States v. Bailey, 444 U. S. 394, 403-406; has been recognized, at least implicitly, by this Court in Cruzan v. Director, Mo. Dept. of Health, 497 U. S. 261, 278-280; id., at 287-288 (O'CONNOR, J., concurring); and has been widely recognized and endorsed in the medical profession, the state courts, and the overwhelming majority of state legislatures, which, like New York's, have permitted the former while prohibiting the latter. The Court therefore disagrees with respondents' claim that the distinction is "arbitrary" and "irrational." The line between the two acts may not always be clear, but certainty is not required, even were it possible. Logic and contemporary practice support New York's judgment that the two acts are different, and New York may therefore, consistent with the Constitution, treat them differently. Pp. 799-808.
(b) New York's reasons for recognizing and acting on the distinction between refusing treatment and assisting a suicide-including prohibiting intentional killing and preserving life; preventing suicide; maintaining physicians' role as their patients' healers; protecting vulnerable people from indifference, prejudice, and psychological and financial pressure to end their lives; and avoiding a possible slide toward euthanasia-are valid and important public interests that easily satisfy the constitutional requirement that a legislative classification bear a rational relation to some legitimate end. See Glucksberg, ante. Pp. 808-809.
80 F.3d 716, reversed.
REHNQUIST, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which GINSBURG and BREYER, JJ., joined in part, ante, p. 736. STEVENS, J., ante, p. 738, SOUTER, J., post, p. 809, GINSBURG, J., ante, p. 789, and BREYER, J., ante, p. 789, filed opinions concurring in the judgment.
Dennis C. Vacco, Attorney General of New York, pro se, argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Barbara Gott Billet, Solicitor General, and Daniel Smirlock and Michael S. Popkin, Assistant Attorneys General.
Acting Solicitor General Dellinger argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal. With him on the brief were Assistant Attorney General Hunger, Deputy Solicitor General Waxman, Deputy Assistant