Vacco v. Quill, Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702; 117 S. Ct. 2258; 138 L. Ed. 2d 772 (1997)

Facts—The state of Washington prohibited individuals from aiding suicides (the law does not prohibit the withholding of “life-sustaining treatment”). Physicians who sometimes treated terminally ill individuals challenged the law as an undue burden on the “liberty interest” protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The U.S. District Court agreed. Although the Ninth Circuit originally voted to reverse, it affirmed the District Court after a rehearing en banc.

Issue—Is a law prohibiting physician-assisted suicide a violation of the “liberty interest” protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?


ReasonsC.J. Rehnquist (9–0). Rehnquist noted that bans against suicide and assisted suicide dated back hundreds of years in the Anglo-American legal tradition and were incorporated into state statues as early as 1828. A number of states had recently reconsidered and reaffirmed these laws. The “liberty” protected by the due process clause has been recognized to include such rights as the right to marry, the right to raise and educate children, and the right to privacy. Such rights have been limited, however, to those regarded as “fundamental” and “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” The “right to die” asserted by the lower courts fits neither criterion. The Washington law serves a number of important interests. It was designed to reflect an “unqualified interest in the preservation of human life”; as a means of “protecting the integrity and ethics of the medical profession”; as a way of “protecting vulnerable groups—including the poor, the elderly, and disabled persons—from abuse, neglect, and mistakes”; and as a way of setting the state down the path of voluntary or even involuntary euthanasia.

J. O’Connor’s concurrence distinguished the right of assisted suicide from allowing physicians to alleviate suffering, even when such palliative care could hasten death. J. Stevens’s concurrence pointed to room for “further debate about the limits that the Constitution places on the power of the States to punish the practice.” Rejecting an “absolute right to physician-assisted suicide,” he thought there might be a more limited one.

J. Souter’s concurrence stressed the need for careful deliberation on such matters that weighed respective interests without issuing blanket rulings. J. Ginsburg agreed with O’Connor’s concurrence.

J. Breyer did not think the right at issue was adequately characterized as a “right to commit suicide” and believed that a law (unlike the one at issue here) prohibiting palliative care that might incidentally shorten life could be unconstitutional.

Note—In a companion case, Vacco v. Quill, 521 U.S. 793 (1997) the Court also overturned a decision by the U.S. Second Court of Appeals. The Appeals Court had ruled that a New York law allowing doctors to terminate care but prohibiting them from administering drugs to end life violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

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