Washington v. Glucksberg

Washington v. Glucksberg: Background and Questions

  1. Why does the Court in Cruzan v. Director (1990) and Washington v. Glucksberg (1997), analyze the right to die as a liberty interest and not as a fundamental right? What is the difference between the analysis used to evaluate a challenge involving a liberty interest versus a fundamental right?
  2. Why would Justices O’Connor and Kennedy join Chief Justice Rehnquist’s opinion in Glucksberg after refusing to join Justice Scalia’s footnote 6 in Michael H.? What is the difference in approach?
  3. What is the dispute between Justice Souter and Chief Justice Rehnquist in Glucksberg? What are the implications of the difference in their approaches?
  4. How would a conclusion that plaintiffs in Michael H., Cruzan, and Glucksberg were asserting a fundamental right have affected the reasoning in those cases?
  5. In Glucksberg, the Court refers to a companion case, Vacco v. Quill (1997). In Vacco, the Court, using rational basis analysis, rejected an equal protection challenge to New York’s prohibition on assisting suicide.
  6. After Cruzan and Glucksberg, assume that State X requires proof of desire to die in circumstances like those of Cruzan by proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Is this requirement constitutional? Assume another state requires execution of a written and witnessed living will. Is this requirement constitutional?
  7. Consider the following hypothetical. Dr. Herb is a homeopathic physician in the state of Virginia. He was trained and licensed as an M.D. and then went to Europe for further training in homeopathic medicine. Homeopathic physicians treat illnesses by prescribing very small doses of medicines that would produce similar symptoms to the patient’s problem if given to a healthy individual. For example, it is the medical system that pioneered treating malaria with quinine. The system is recognized in three states and in many European countries. Homeopathic practice was largely suppressed in this country for many years through the efforts of the medical establishment.

A proceeding is brought to bar Dr. Herb from practicing medicine. Evidence indicates that none of his patients were harmed and some were helped. The statute permits barring doctors who deviate from standards of acceptable and prevailing medical practice. One of Dr. Herb’s patients, Dr. Groat — herself an M.D. — is being treated by him for a gastrointestinal disorder. She saw 12 doctors before Doctor Herb and experienced no improvement. Under Doctor Herb’s care she has improved, but is still under treatment. She contends that the action against Dr. Herb violates her right to privacy. What result? Why?

On what clause of the Constitution will Dr. Groat rely? What is the first question to ask in analyzing Dr. Groat’s privacy claim? What factors are relevant to analyzing that question? How does the answer to that question affect the rest of the analysis? How does level of scrutiny fit in?

Washington v. Glucksberg

521 U.S. 702 (1997)

[Majority: Rehnquist (C.J.), O’Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas. Concurring: O’Connor, Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer.]

Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented in this case is whether Washington’s prohibition against “caus[ing]” or “aid[ing]” a suicide offends the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. We hold that it does not.

It has always been a crime to assist a suicide in the State of Washington. In 1854, Washington’s first Territorial Legislature outlawed “assisting another in the commission of self-murder.” Today, Washington law provides: “A person is guilty of promoting a suicide attempt when he knowingly causes or aids another person to attempt suicide.” Wash. Rev. Code § 9A.36.060(1) (1994). “Promoting a suicide attempt” is a felony, punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment and up to a $10,000 fine. §§ 9A.36.060(2) and 9A.20.021(1)(c). At the same time, Washington’s Natural Death Act, enacted in 1979, states that the “withholding or withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment” at a patient’s direction “shall not, for any purpose, constitute a suicide.” Wash. Rev. Code § 70.122.070(1). . . .

The plaintiffs asserted “the existence of a liberty interest protected by the 14th Amendment which extends to a personal choice by a mentally competent, terminally ill adult to commit physician-assisted suicide.” Relying primarily on Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), and Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Dept. of Health (1990), the District Court agreed, and concluded that Washington’s assisted-suicide ban is unconstitutional because it “places an undue burden on the exercise of [that] constitutionally protected liberty interest.” . . .

[The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, affirmed and] emphasized our Casey and Cruzan decisions. The court also discussed what it described as “historical” and “current societal attitudes” toward suicide and assisted suicide, and concluded that “the Constitution encompasses a due process liberty interest in controlling the time and manner of one’s death — that there is, in short, a constitutionally-recognized ‘right to die.'” After “[w]eighing and then balancing” this interest against Washington’s various interests, the court held that the State’s assisted-suicide ban was unconstitutional “as applied to terminally ill competent adults who wish to hasten their deaths with medication prescribed by their physicians.” . . . We granted certiorari, and now reverse.

  1. We begin, as we do in all due process cases, by examining our Nation’s history, legal traditions, and practices. See, e.g., Casey; Cruzan; Moore v. East Cleveland (1977) (plurality opinion) (noting importance of “careful ‘respect for the teachings of history'”). In almost every State — indeed, in almost every western democracy — it is a crime to assist a suicide.[1] The States’ assisted-suicide bans are not innovations. Rather, they are longstanding expressions of the States’ commitment to the protection and preservation of all human life. . . . [S]ee Stanford v. Kentucky (1987) (“[T]he primary and most reliable indication of [a national] consensus is . . . the pattern of enacted laws”). Indeed, opposition to and condemnation of suicide — and, therefore, of assisting suicide — are consistent and enduring themes of our philosophical, legal, and cultural heritages.

More specifically, for over 700 years, the Anglo-American common-law tradition has punished or otherwise disapproved of both suicide and assisting suicide. . . . [The Court reviews English, American colonial, and American history.] . . .

Though deeply rooted, the States’ assisted-suicide bans have in recent years been reexamined and, generally, reaffirmed. Because of advances in medicine and technology, Americans today are increasingly likely to die in institutions, from chronic illnesses. Public concern and democratic action are therefore sharply focused on how best to protect dignity and independence at the end of life, with the result that there have been many significant changes in state laws and in the attitudes these laws reflect. Many States, for example, now permit “living wills,” surrogate health-care decision making, and the withdrawal or refusal of life-sustaining medical treatment. At the same time, however, voters and legislators continue for the most part to reaffirm their States’ prohibitions on assisting suicide.

The Washington statute at issue in this case was enacted in 1975 as part of a revision of that State’s criminal code. Four years later, Washington passed its Natural Death Act, which specifically stated that the “withholding or withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment . . . shall not, for any purpose, constitute a suicide” and that “[n]othing in this chapter shall be construed to condone, authorize, or approve mercy killing. . . .” (Wash. Rev. Code §§ 70.122.070(1), 70.122.100 (1994)). In 1991, Washington voters rejected a ballot initiative which, had it passed, would have permitted a form of physician-assisted suicide. Washington then added a provision to the Natural Death Act expressly excluding physician-assisted suicide. . . .

Thus, the States are currently engaged in serious, thoughtful examinations of physician-assisted suicide and other similar issues. . . .

Attitudes toward suicide itself have changed since [the 13th century], but our laws have consistently condemned, and continue to prohibit, assisting suicide. Despite changes in medical technology and notwithstanding an increased emphasis on the importance of end-of-life decisionmaking, we have not retreated from this prohibition. Against this backdrop of history, tradition, and practice, we now turn to respondents’ constitutional claim.

  1. The Due Process Clause guarantees more than fair process, and the “liberty” it protects includes more than the absence of physical restraint. Collins v. Harker Heights (1992) (Due Process Clause “protects individual liberty against ‘certain government actions regardless of the fairness of the procedures used to implement them'”). The Clause also provides heightened protection against government interference with certain fundamental rights and liberty interests. . . .

But we “have always been reluctant to expand the concept of substantive due process because guideposts for responsible decisionmaking in this unchartered area are scarce and open-ended.” By extending constitutional protection to an asserted right or liberty interest, we, to a great extent, place the matter outside the arena of public debate and legislative action. We must therefore “exercise the utmost care whenever we are asked to break new ground in this field,” lest the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause be subtly transformed into the policy preferences of the members of this Court.

Our established method of substantive-due-process analysis has two primary features: First, we have regularly observed that the Due Process Clause specially protects those fundamental rights and liberties which are, objectively, “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition,” [or “so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental”,] and “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty,” such that “neither liberty nor justice would exist if they were sacrificed.” Second, we have required in substantive-due-process cases a “careful description” of the asserted fundamental liberty interest. Our Nation’s history, legal traditions, and practices thus provide the crucial “guideposts for responsible decisionmaking”, “that direct and restrain our exposition of the Due Process Clause.” . . .

Justice Souter, relying on Justice Harlan’s dissenting opinion in Poe v. Ullman (1961), would largely abandon this restrained methodology, and instead ask “whether [Washington’s] statute sets up one of those ‘arbitrary impositions’ or ‘purposeless restraints’ at odds with the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.” In our view, however, the development of this Court’s substantive-due-process jurisprudence, described briefly [above], has been a process whereby the outlines of the “liberty” specially protected by the 14th Amendment — never fully clarified, to be sure, and perhaps not capable of being fully clarified — have at least been carefully refined by concrete examples involving fundamental rights found to be deeply rooted in our legal tradition. This approach tends to rein in the subjective elements that are necessarily present in due-process judicial review. In addition, by establishing a threshold requirement — that a challenged state action implicate a fundamental right — before requiring more than a reasonable relation to a legitimate state interest to justify the action, it avoids the need for complex balancing of competing interests in every case.

Turning to the claim at issue here, the Court of Appeals stated that “[p]roperly analyzed, the first issue to be resolved is whether there is a liberty interest in determining the time and manner of one’s death,” or, in other words, “[i]s there a right to die?” Similarly, respondents assert a “liberty to choose how to die” and a right to “control of one’s final days,” and describe the asserted liberty as “the right to choose a humane, dignified death,” and “the liberty to shape death.” As noted above, we have a tradition of carefully formulating the interest at stake in substantive-due-process cases. For example, although Cruzan is often described as a “right to die” case, we were, in fact, more precise: We assumed that the Constitution granted competent persons a “constitutionally protected right to refuse lifesaving hydration and nutrition.” The Washington statute at issue in this case prohibits “aid[ing] another person to attempt suicide,” and, thus, the question before us is whether the “liberty” specially protected by the Due Process Clause includes a right to commit suicide which itself includes a right to assistance in doing so.

We now inquire whether this asserted right has any place in our Nation’s traditions. Here, as discussed [above], we are confronted with a consistent and almost universal tradition that has long rejected the asserted right, and continues explicitly to reject it today, even for terminally ill, mentally competent adults. To hold for respondents, we would have to reverse centuries of legal doctrine and practice, and strike down the considered policy choice of almost every State. . . .

According to respondents, our liberty jurisprudence, and the broad, individualistic principles it reflects, protects the “liberty of competent, terminally ill adults to make end-of-life decisions free of undue government interference.” The question presented in this case, however, is whether the protections of the Due Process Clause include a right to commit suicide with another’s assistance. With this “careful description” of respondents’ claim in mind, we turn to Casey and Cruzan.

In Cruzan, we considered whether Nancy Beth Cruzan, who had been severely injured in an automobile accident and was in a persistive vegetative state, “ha[d] a right under the United States Constitution which would require the hospital to withdraw life-sustaining treatment” at her parents’ request. . . .”[W]e assume[d] that the United States Constitution would grant a competent person a constitutionally protected right to refuse lifesaving hydration and nutrition.” We concluded that, notwithstanding this right, the Constitution permitted Missouri to require clear and convincing evidence of an incompetent patient’s wishes concerning the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment. . . .

[T]he Court of Appeals concluded [below] that “Cruzan, by recognizing a liberty interest that includes the refusal of artificial provision of life-sustaining food and water, necessarily recognize[d] a liberty interest in hastening one’s own death.”

The right assumed in Cruzan, however, was not simply deduced from abstract concepts of personal autonomy. Given the common-law rule that forced medication was a battery, and the long legal tradition protecting the decision to refuse unwanted medical treatment, our assumption was entirely consistent with this Nation’s history and constitutional traditions. The decision to commit suicide with the assistance of another may be just as personal and profound as the decision to refuse unwanted medical treatment, but it has never enjoyed similar legal protection. Indeed, the two acts are widely and reasonably regarded as quite distinct. In Cruzan itself, we recognized that most States outlawed assisted suicide — and even more do today — and we certainly gave no intimation that the right to refuse unwanted medical treatment could be somehow transmuted into a right to assistance in committing suicide.

Respondents also rely on Casey. . . . In reaching [its] conclusion, the opinion discussed in some detail this Court’s substantive-due-process tradition of interpreting the Due Process Clause to protect certain fundamental rights and “personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education,” and noted that many of those rights and liberties “involv[e] the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime.”

The Court of Appeals, found Casey “highly instructive” and “almost prescriptive” for determining “‘what liberty interest may inhere in a terminally ill person’s choice to commit suicide'”:

Like the decision of whether or not to have an abortion, the decision how and when to die is one of “the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime,” a choice “central to personal dignity and autonomy.” . . .

That many of the rights and liberties protected by the Due Process Clause sound in personal autonomy does not warrant the sweeping conclusion that any and all important, intimate, and personal decisions are so protected, and Casey did not suggest otherwise.

The history of the law’s treatment of assisted suicide in this country has been and continues to be one of the rejection of nearly all efforts to permit it. That being the case, our decisions lead us to conclude that the asserted “right” to assistance in committing suicide is not a fundamental liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause. The Constitution also requires, however, that Washington’s assisted-suicide ban be rationally related to legitimate government interests. . . . This requirement is unquestionably met here. As the court below recognized,[2] Washington’s assisted-suicide ban implicates a number of state interests. . . .

We need not weigh exactingly the relative strengths of these various interests. They are unquestionably important and legitimate, and Washington’s ban on assisted suicide is at least reasonably related to their promotion and protection. We therefore hold that [the ban] does not violate the 14th Amendment, either on its face or “as applied to competent, terminally ill adults who wish to hasten their deaths by obtaining medication prescribed by their doctors.”[3]

Throughout the Nation, Americans are engaged in an earnest and profound debate about the morality, legality, and practicality of physician-assisted suicide. Our holding permits this debate to continue, as it should in a democratic society. The decision of the en banc Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Justice Souter, concurring in the judgment. . . .

[This statute punishes a] doctor who accede[s] to a dying patient’s request for a drug to be taken by the patient to commit suicide. The question is whether the statute sets up one of those “arbitrary impositions” or “purposeless restraints” at odds with the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. Poe v. Ullman (1961) (Harlan, J., dissenting). I conclude that the statute’s application to the doctors has not been shown to be unconstitutional, but I write separately to give my reasons for analyzing the substantive due process claims as I do, and for rejecting this one. . . .

  1. [T]he State argues that the interest asserted by the doctors is beyond constitutional recognition because it has no deep roots in our history and traditions. But even aside from that, without disputing that the patients here were competent and terminally ill, the State insists that recognizing the legitimacy of doctors’ assistance of their patients as contemplated here would entail a number of adverse consequences that the Washington Legislature was entitled to forestall. The nub of this part of the State’s argument is not that such patients are constitutionally undeserving of relief on their own account, but that any attempt to confine a right of physician assistance to the circumstances presented by these doctors is likely to fail. . . .

The State thus argues that recognition of the substantive due process right at issue here would jeopardize the lives of others outside the class defined by the doctors’ claim, creating risks of irresponsible suicides and euthanasia, whose dangers are concededly within the State’s authority to address.

  1. . . . [Plaintiffs make a substantive due process claim.] The persistence of substantive due process in our cases points to the legitimacy of the modern justification for such judicial review found in Justice Harlan’s dissent in Poe, on which I will dwell further on, while the acknowledged failures of some of these cases [e.g., Lochner v. New York (1905)] point with caution to the difficulty raised by the present claim. . . .

III. My understanding of unenumerated rights in the wake of the Poe dissent and subsequent cases avoids the absolutist failing of many older cases without embracing the opposite pole of equating reasonableness with past practice described at a very specific level. That understanding begins with a concept of “ordered liberty,” comprising a continuum of rights to be free from “arbitrary impositions and purposeless restraints,” Poe (Harlan, J., dissenting).

Due Process has not been reduced to any formula; its content cannot be determined by reference to any code. The best that can be said is that through the course of this Court’s decisions it has represented the balance which our Nation, built upon postulates of respect for the liberty of the individual, has struck between that liberty and the demands of organized society. If the supplying of content to this Constitutional concept has of necessity been a rational process, it certainly has not been one where judges have felt free to roam where unguided speculation might take them. The balance of which I speak is the balance struck by this country, having regard to what history teaches are the traditions from which it developed as well as the traditions from which it broke. That tradition is a living thing. A decision of this Court which radically departs from it could not long survive, while a decision which builds on what has survived is likely to be sound. No formula could serve as a substitute, in this area, for judgment and restraint. . . .

After the Poe dissent, as before it, this enforceable concept of liberty would bar statutory impositions even at relatively trivial levels when governmental restraints are undeniably irrational as unsupported by any imaginable rationale. See, e.g., United States v. Carolene Products Co. (1938) (economic legislation “not . . . unconstitutional unless . . . facts . . . preclude the assumption that it rests upon some rational basis”). Such instances are suitably rare. The claims of arbitrariness that mark almost all instances of unenumerated substantive rights are those resting on “certain interests requir[ing] particularly careful scrutiny of the state needs asserted to justify their abridgment.” Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942); Bolling v. Sharpe (1954); that is, interests in liberty sufficiently important to be judged “fundamental.” . . . In the face of an interest this powerful a State may not rest on threshold rationality or a presumption of constitutionality, but may prevail only on the ground of an interest sufficiently compelling to place within the realm of the reasonable a refusal to recognize the individual right asserted. . . .

This approach calls for a court to assess the relative “weights” or dignities of the contending interests, and to this extent the judicial method is familiar to the common law. Common law method is subject, however, to two important constraints in the hands of a court engaged in substantive due process review. First, such a court is bound to confine the values that it recognizes to those truly deserving constitutional stature, either to those expressed in constitutional text, or those exemplified by “the traditions from which [the Nation] developed,” or revealed by contrast with “the traditions from which it broke.” Poe (Harlan, J., dissenting). “‘We may not draw on our merely personal and private notions and disregard the limits . . . derived from considerations that are fused in the whole nature of our judicial process . . . [,] considerations deeply rooted in reason and in the compelling traditions of the legal profession.'” Id.

The second constraint, again, simply reflects the fact that constitutional review, not judicial lawmaking, is a court’s business here. The weighing or valuing of contending interests in this sphere is only the first step, forming the basis for determining whether the statute in question falls inside or outside the zone of what is reasonable in the way it resolves the conflict between the interests of state and individual. It is no justification for judicial intervention merely to identify a reasonable resolution of contending values that differs from the terms of the legislation under review. It is only when the legislation’s justifying principle, critically valued, is so far from being commensurate with the individual interest as to be arbitrarily or pointlessly applied that the statute must give way. Only if this standard points against the statute can the individual claimant be said to have a constitutional right.

The Poe dissent thus reminds us of the nature of review for reasonableness or arbitrariness and the limitations entailed by it. But the opinion cautions against the repetition of past error in another way as well, more by its example than by any particular statement of constitutional method: it reminds us that the process of substantive review by reasoned judgment, is one of close criticism going to the details of the opposing interests and to their relationships with the historically recognized principles that lend them weight or value.

Although the Poe dissent disclaims the possibility of any general formula for due process analysis (beyond the basic analytic structure just described), Justice Harlan of course assumed that adjudication under the Due Process Clauses is like any other instance of judgment dependent on common-law method, being more or less persuasive according to the usual canons of critical discourse. When identifying and assessing the competing interests of liberty and authority, for example, the breadth of expression that a litigant or a judge selects in stating the competing principles will have much to do with the outcome and may be dispositive. As in any process of rational argumentation, we recognize that when a generally accepted principle is challenged, the broader the attack the less likely it is to succeed. The principle’s defenders will, indeed, often try to characterize any challenge as just such a broadside, perhaps by couching the defense as if a broadside attack had occurred. So the Court in Dred Scott (1857) treated prohibition of slavery in the Territories as nothing less than a general assault on the concept of property.

Just as results in substantive due process cases are tied to the selections of statements of the competing interests, the acceptability of the results is a function of the good reasons for the selections made. It is here that the value of common-law method becomes apparent, for the usual thinking of the common law is suspicious of the all-or-nothing analysis that tends to produce legal petrification instead of an evolving boundary between the domains of old principles. Common-law method tends to pay respect instead to detail, seeking to understand old principles afresh by new examples and new counterexamples. The “tradition is a living thing,” Poe (Harlan, J., dissenting), albeit one that moves by moderate steps carefully taken. “The decision of an apparently novel claim must depend on grounds which follow closely on well-accepted principles and criteria. The new decision must take its place in relation to what went before and further [cut] a channel for what is to come.” Id. Exact analysis and characterization of any due process claim is critical to the method and to the result.

So, in Poe, Justice Harlan viewed it as essential to the plaintiffs’ claimed right to use contraceptives that they sought to do so within the privacy of the marital bedroom. This detail in fact served two crucial and complementary functions, and provides a lesson for today. It rescued the individuals’ claim from a breadth that would have threatened all state regulation of contraception or intimate relations; extramarital intimacy, no matter how privately practiced, was outside the scope of the right Justice Harlan would have recognized in that case. It was, moreover, this same restriction that allowed the interest to be valued as an aspect of a broader liberty to be free from all unreasonable intrusions into the privacy of the home and the family life within it, a liberty exemplified in constitutional provisions such as the 3rd and 4th Amendments, in prior decisions of the Court involving unreasonable intrusions into the home and family life, and in the then-prevailing status of marriage as the sole lawful locus of intimate relations.

On the other side of the balance, the State’s interest in Poe was not fairly characterized simply as preserving sexual morality, or doing so by regulating contraceptive devices. Just as some of the earlier cases went astray by speaking without nuance of individual interests in property or autonomy to contract for labor, so the State’s asserted interest in Poe was not immune to distinctions turning (at least potentially) on the precise purpose being pursued and the collateral consequences of the means chosen. It was assumed that the State might legitimately enforce limits on the use of contraceptives through laws regulating divorce and annulment, or even through its tax policy, but not necessarily be justified in criminalizing the same practice in the marital bedroom, which would entail the consequence of authorizing state enquiry into the intimate relations of a married couple who chose to close their door.

The same insistence on exactitude lies behind questions, in current terminology, about the proper level of generality at which to analyze claims and counter-claims, and the demand for fitness and proper tailoring of a restrictive statute is just another way of testing the legitimacy of the generality at which the government sets up its justification.[4] We may therefore classify Justice Harlan’s example of proper analysis in any of these ways: as applying concepts of normal critical reasoning, as pointing to the need to attend to the levels of generality at which countervailing interests are stated, or as examining the concrete application of principles for fitness with their own ostensible justifications. But whatever the categories in which we place the dissent’s example, it stands in marked contrast to earlier cases whose reasoning was marked by comparatively less discrimination, and it points to the importance of evaluating the claims of the parties now before us with comparable detail. For here we are faced with an individual claim not to a right on the part of just anyone to help anyone else commit suicide under any circumstances, but to the right of a narrow class to help others also in a narrow class under a set of limited circumstances. And the claimants are met with the State’s assertion, among others, that rights of such narrow scope cannot be recognized without jeopardy to individuals whom the State may concededly protect through its regulations.

IV-A. Respondents claim that a patient facing imminent death, who anticipates physical suffering and indignity, and is capable of responsible and voluntary choice, should have a right to a physician’s assistance in providing counsel and drugs to be administered by the patient to end life promptly. They accordingly claim that a physician must have the corresponding right to provide such aid, contrary to the provisions of Wash. Rev. Code § 9A.36.060 (1994). I do not understand the argument to rest on any assumption that rights either to suicide or to assistance in committing it are historically based as such. Respondents, rather, acknowledge the prohibition of each historically, but rely on the fact that to a substantial extent the State has repudiated that history. The result of this, respondents say, is to open the door to claims of such a patient to be accorded one of the options open to those with different, traditionally cognizable claims to autonomy in deciding how their bodies and minds should be treated. . . .

IV-A-1. . . . It is, indeed, in the abortion cases that the most telling recognitions of the importance of bodily integrity and the concomitant tradition of medical assistance have occurred. . . .

The analogies between the abortion cases and this one are several. Even though the State has a legitimate interest in discouraging abortion, the Court recognized a woman’s right to a physician’s counsel and care. Like the decision to commit suicide, the decision to abort potential life can be made irresponsibly and under the influence of others, and yet the Court has held in the abortion cases that physicians are fit assistants. Without physician assistance in abortion, the woman’s right would have too often amounted to nothing more than a right to self-mutilation, and without a physician to assist in the suicide of the dying, the patient’s right will often be confined to crude methods of causing death, most shocking and painful to the decedent’s survivors.

There is, finally, one more reason for claiming that a physician’s assistance here would fall within the accepted tradition of medical care in our society, and the abortion cases are only the most obvious illustration of the further point. While the Court has held that the performance of abortion procedures can be restricted to physicians, the Court’s opinion in Roe v. Wade (1973) recognized the doctors’ role in yet another way. For, in the course of holding that the decision to perform an abortion called for a physician’s assistance, the Court recognized that the good physician is not just a mechanic of the human body whose services have no bearing on a person’s moral choices, but one who does more than treat symptoms, one who ministers to the patient. . . . Its value is surely as apparent here as in the abortion cases. . . .

IV-B. The State has put forward several interests to justify the Washington law as applied to physicians treating terminally ill patients, even those competent to make responsible choices: protecting life generally, discouraging suicide even if knowing and voluntary, and protecting terminally ill patients from involuntary suicide and euthanasia, both voluntary and nonvoluntary.

It is not necessary to discuss the exact strengths of the first two claims of justification in the present circumstances, for the third is dispositive for me. That third justification is different from the first two, for it addresses specific features of respondents’ claim, and it opposes that claim not with a moral judgment contrary to respondents’, but with a recognized state interest in the protection of nonresponsible individuals and those who do not stand in relation either to death or to their physicians as do the patients whom respondents describe. The State claims interests in protecting patients from mistakenly and involuntarily deciding to end their lives, and in guarding against both voluntary and involuntary euthanasia. Leaving aside any difficulties in coming to a clear concept of imminent death, mistaken decisions may result from inadequate palliative care or a terminal prognosis that turns out to be error; coercion and abuse may stem from the large medical bills that family members cannot bear or unreimbursed hospitals decline to shoulder. Voluntary and involuntary euthanasia may result once doctors are authorized to prescribe lethal medication in the first instance, for they might find it pointless to distinguish between patients who administer their own fatal drugs and those who wish not to, and their compassion for those who suffer may obscure the distinction between those who ask for death and those who may be unable to request it. The argument is that a progression would occur, obscuring the line between the ill and the dying, and between the responsible and the unduly influenced, until ultimately doctors and perhaps others would abuse a limited freedom to aid suicides by yielding to the impulse to end another’s suffering under conditions going beyond the narrow limits the respondents propose. The State thus argues, essentially, that respondents’ claim is not as narrow as it sounds, simply because no recognition of the interest they assert could be limited to vindicating those interests and affecting no others. The State says that the claim, in practical effect, would entail consequences that the State could, without doubt, legitimately act to prevent.

The mere assertion that the terminally sick might be pressured into suicide decisions by close friends and family members would not alone be very telling. Of course that is possible, not only because the costs of care might be more than family members could bear but simply because they might naturally wish to see an end of suffering for someone they love. But one of the points of restricting any right of assistance to physicians would be to condition the right on an exercise of judgment by someone qualified to assess the patient’s responsible capacity and detect the influence of those outside the medical relationship.

The State, however, goes further, to argue that dependence on the vigilance of physicians will not be enough. First, the lines proposed here (particularly the requirement of a knowing and voluntary decision by the patient) would be more difficult to draw than the lines that have limited other recently recognized due process rights. Limiting a state from prosecuting use of artificial contraceptives by married couples posed no practical threat to the State’s capacity to regulate contraceptives in other ways that were assumed at the time of Poe to be legitimate; the trimester measurements of Roe and the viability determination of Casey were easy to make with a real degree of certainty. But the knowing and responsible mind is harder to assess. Second, this difficulty could become the greater by combining with another fact within the realm of plausibility, that physicians simply would not be assiduous to preserve the line. They have compassion, and those who would be willing to assist in suicide at all might be the most susceptible to the wishes of a patient, whether the patient was technically quite responsible or not. Physicians, and their hospitals, have their own financial incentives, too, in this new age of managed care. Whether acting from compassion or under some other influence, a physician who would provide a drug for a patient to administer might well go the further step of administering the drug himself; so, the barrier between assisted suicide and euthanasia could become porous, and the line between voluntary and involuntary euthanasia as well. The case for the slippery slope is fairly made out here, not because recognizing one due process right would leave a court with no principled basis to avoid recognizing another, but because there is a plausible case that the right claimed would not be readily containable by reference to facts about the mind that are matters of difficult judgment, or by gatekeepers who are subject to temptation, noble or not.

Respondents propose an answer to all this, the answer of state regulation with teeth. Legislation proposed in several States, for example, would authorize physician-assisted suicide but require two qualified physicians to confirm the patient’s diagnosis, prognosis, and competence; and would mandate that the patient make repeated requests witnessed by at least two others over a specified timespan; and would impose reporting requirements and criminal penalties for various acts of coercion.

But at least at this moment there are reasons for caution in predicting the effectiveness of the teeth proposed. Respondents’ proposals, as it turns out, sound much like the guidelines now in place in the Netherlands, the only place where experience with physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia has yielded empirical evidence about how such regulations might affect actual practice. Dutch physicians must engage in consultation before proceeding, and must decide whether the patient’s decision is voluntary, well considered, and stable, whether the request to die is enduring and made more than once, and whether the patient’s future will involve unacceptable suffering. There is, however, a substantial dispute today about what the Dutch experience shows. Some commentators marshall evidence that the Dutch guidelines have in practice failed to protect patients from involuntary euthanasia and have been violated with impunity. . . . This evidence is contested. . . . The day may come when we can say with some assurance which side is right, but for now it is the substantiality of the factual disagreement, and the alternatives for resolving it, that matter. They are, for me, dispositive of the due process claim at this time.

I take it that the basic concept of judicial review with its possible displacement of legislative judgment bars any finding that a legislature has acted arbitrarily when the following conditions are met: there is a serious factual controversy over the feasibility of recognizing the claimed right without at the same time making it impossible for the State to engage in an undoubtedly legitimate exercise of power; facts necessary to resolve the controversy are not readily ascertainable through the judicial process; but they are more readily subject to discovery through legislative factfinding and experimentation. It is assumed in this case, and must be, that a State’s interest in protecting those unable to make responsible decisions and those who make no decisions at all entitles the State to bar aid to any but a knowing and responsible person intending suicide, and to prohibit euthanasia. How, and how far, a State should act in that interest are judgments for the State, but the legitimacy of its action to deny a physician the option to aid any but the knowing and responsible is beyond question.

The capacity of the State to protect the others if respondents were to prevail is, however, subject to some genuine question, underscored by the responsible disagreement over the basic facts of the Dutch experience. This factual controversy is not open to a judicial resolution with any substantial degree of assurance at this time. It is not, of course, that any controversy about the factual predicate of a due process claim disqualifies a court from resolving it. Courts can recognize captiousness, and most factual issues can be settled in a trial court. At this point, however, the factual issue at the heart of this case does not appear to be one of those. The principal enquiry at the moment is into the Dutch experience, and I question whether an independent front-line investigation into the facts of a foreign country’s legal administration can be soundly undertaken through American courtroom litigation. While an extensive literature on any subject can raise the hopes for judicial understanding, the literature on this subject is only nascent. Since there is little experience directly bearing on the issue, the most that can be said is that whichever way the Court might rule today, events could overtake its assumptions, as experimentation in some jurisdictions confirmed or discredited the concerns about progression from assisted suicide to euthanasia.

Legislatures, on the other hand, have superior opportunities to obtain the facts necessary for a judgment about the present controversy. Not only do they have more flexible mechanisms for fact finding than the Judiciary, but their mechanisms include the power to experiment, moving forward and pulling back as facts emerge within their own jurisdictions. There is, indeed, good reason to suppose that in the absence of a judgment for respondents here, just such experimentation will be attempted in some of the States.

I do not decide here what the significance might be of legislative footdragging in ascertaining the facts going to the State’s argument that the right in question could not be confined as claimed. Sometimes a court may be bound to act regardless of the institutional preferability of the political branches as forums for addressing constitutional claims. Now, it is enough to say that our examination of legislative reasonableness should consider the fact that the Legislature of the State of Washington is no more obviously at fault than this Court is in being uncertain about what would happen if respondents prevailed today. We therefore have a clear question about which institution, a legislature or a court, is relatively more competent to deal with an emerging issue as to which facts currently unknown could be dispositive. The answer has to be, for the reasons already stated, that the legislative process is to be preferred. There is a closely related further reason as well.

One must bear in mind that the nature of the right claimed, if recognized as one constitutionally required, would differ in no essential way from other constitutional rights guaranteed by enumeration or derived from some more definite textual source than “due process.” An unenumerated right should not therefore be recognized, with the effect of displacing the legislative ordering of things, without the assurance that its recognition would prove as durable as the recognition of those other rights differently derived. To recognize a right of lesser promise would simply create a constitutional regime too uncertain to bring with it the expectation of finality that is one of this Court’s central obligations in making constitutional decisions.

Legislatures, however, are not so constrained. The experimentation that should be out of the question in constitutional adjudication displacing legislative judgments is entirely proper, as well as highly desirable, when the legislative power addresses an emerging issue like assisted suicide. The Court should accordingly stay its hand to allow reasonable legislative consideration. While I do not decide for all time that respondents’ claim should not be recognized, I acknowledge the legislative institutional competence as the better one to deal with that claim at this time.

Justice O’Connor, concurring.

Death will be different for each of us. For many, the last days will be spent in physical pain and perhaps the despair that accompanies physical deterioration and a loss of control of basic bodily and mental functions. Some will seek medication to alleviate that pain and other symptoms.

The Court frames the issue in [this case] as whether the Due Process Clause of the Constitution protects a “right to commit suicide which itself includes a right to assistance in doing so,” and concludes that our Nation’s history, legal traditions, and practices do not support the existence of such a right. I join the Court’s opinions because I agree that there is no generalized right to “commit suicide.” But respondents urge us to address the narrower question whether a mentally competent person who is experiencing great suffering has a constitutionally cognizable interest in controlling the circumstances of his or her imminent death. I see no need to reach that question in the context of the facial challenges to the New York and Washington laws at issue here. (“The Washington statute at issue in this case prohibits ‘aid[ing] another person to attempt suicide,’. . . and, thus, the question before us is whether the ‘liberty’ specially protected by the Due Process Clause includes a right to commit suicide which itself includes a right to assistance in doing so”). The parties and amici agree that in these States a patient who is suffering from a terminal illness and who is experiencing great pain has no legal barriers to obtaining medication, from qualified physicians, to alleviate that suffering, even to the point of causing unconsciousness and hastening death. In this light, even assuming that we would recognize such an interest, I agree that the State’s interests in protecting those who are not truly competent or facing imminent death, or those whose decisions to hasten death would not truly be voluntary, are sufficiently weighty to justify a prohibition against physician-assisted suicide. . . .

Justice Stevens, concurring in the judgments.

The Court ends its opinion with the important observation that our holding today is fully consistent with a continuation of the vigorous debate about the “morality, legality, and practicality of physician-assisted suicide” in a democratic society. I write separately to make it clear that there is also room for further debate about the limits that the Constitution places on the power of the States to punish the practice.

  1. . . . The value to others of a person’s life is far too precious to allow the individual to claim a constitutional entitlement to complete autonomy in making a decision to end that life. Thus, I fully agree with the Court that the “liberty” protected by the Due Process Clause does not include a categorical “right to commit suicide which itself includes a right to assistance in doing so.”

But just as our conclusion that capital punishment is not always unconstitutional did not preclude later decisions holding that it is sometimes impermissibly cruel, so is it equally clear that a decision upholding a general statutory prohibition of assisted suicide does not mean that every possible application of the statute would be valid. A State, like Washington, that has authorized the death penalty and thereby has concluded that the sanctity of human life does not require that it always be preserved, must acknowledge that there are situations in which an interest in hastening death is legitimate. Indeed, not only is that interest sometimes legitimate, I am also convinced that there are times when it is entitled to constitutional protection. . . .

Justice Ginsburg, concurring in the judgments. [Omitted.]

Justice Breyer, concurring in the judgments. [Omitted.]

[1]. [Court noted that 44 states, the District of Columbia, and several western European countries prohibit or condemn assisted suicide.]


[2]. The court identified and discussed six state interests: (1) preserving life; (2) preventing suicide; (3) avoiding the involvement of third parties and use of arbitrary, unfair, or undue influence; (4) protecting family members and loved ones; (5) protecting the integrity of the medical profession; and (6) avoiding future movement toward euthanasia and other abuses.


[3]. Justice Stevens states that “the Court does conceive of respondents’ claim as a facial challenge — addressing not the application of the statute to a particular set of plaintiffs before it, but the constitutionality of the statute’s categorical prohibition. . . .” We emphasize that we today reject the Court of Appeals’ specific holding that the statute is unconstitutional “as applied” to a particular class. Justice Stevens agrees with this holding, but would not “foreclose the possibility that an individual plaintiff seeking to hasten her death, or a doctor whose assistance was sought, could prevail in a more particularized challenge.” Our opinion does not absolutely foreclose such a claim. However, given our holding that the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment does not provide heightened protection to the asserted liberty interest in ending one’s life with a physician’s assistance, such a claim would have to be quite different from the ones advanced by respondents here.


[4]. The dual dimensions of the strength and the fitness of the government’s interest are succinctly captured in the so called “compelling interest test,” under which regulations that substantially burden a constitutionally protected (or “fundamental”) liberty may be sustained only if “narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.” How compelling the interest and how narrow the tailoring must be will depend, of course, not only on the substantiality of the individual’s own liberty interest, but also on the extent of the burden placed upon it. . . .