Washington v. Glucksberg (West's Encyclopedia of American Law)
In Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, 117 S. Ct. 2258, 138 L. Ed. 2d 772 (1997), the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to review the constitutionality of a Washington state statute prohibiting physician-assisted suicide. By upholding the statute and denying mentally competent, terminally ill patients a constitutional right to hasten their death through lethal doses of self-administered, doctor-prescribed medication, the Supreme Court returned this controversial issue to the states where it continues to be debated among residents, legislators, and judges. In handing down its decision, the Court was careful to point out that it was not foreclosing reconsideration of the issue at some later time.
The case arose in January 1994 when four Washington physicians, three gravely ill patients, and a nonprofit organization that counsels people considering doctor-assisted suicide filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. The lawsuit challenged the constitutionality of Washington Revised Code Section 9A.36.060, which makes it a crime to knowingly assist, aid, or cause the suicide of another person. The district court ruled the statute unconstitutional on the ground that it violated the liberty interest protected by the DUE PROCESS CLAUSE of the FIFTH and FOURTEENTH AMENDMENTS to the U.S. Constitution (Compassion in Dying v. Washington, 850 F. Supp. 1454)....
(The entire section is 2080 words.)
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Washington v. Glucksberg (Great American Court Cases)
Legal Citation: 512 U.S. 702 (1997)
State of Washington
That Washington's ban on assisting or aiding a suicide does not violate the Due Process Clause of the Constitution.
Chief Lawyer for Petitioner
William L. Williams, Senior Assistant Attorney General of Washington
Chief Lawyer for Respondent
Kathryn L. Tucker
Justices for the Court
Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, William H. Rehnquist (writing for the Court), Antonin Scalia, David H. Souter, John Paul Stevens, Clarence Thomas
Date of Decision
26 June 1997
That Washington's ban on assisted suicide does not violate the constitutional rights of terminally ill patients.
The Court's decision made it clear that the Constitution does not protect a person's right to commit suicide, thus upholding the laws of a majority of states which prohibit a person...
(The entire section is 1378 words.)
Washington v. Glucksberg (Supreme Court Drama)
Petitioner: State of Washington
Respondent: Harold Glucksberg
Petitioner's Claim: That Washington's ban on assisting or aiding a suicide does not violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: William L. Williams
Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Kathryn L. Tucker
Justices for the Court: Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, David H. Souter, John Paul Stevens, Clarence Thomas
Justices Dissenting: None
Date of Decision: June 26, 1997
Decision: Ruled that Washington's ban on assisted suicide is constitutional.
Significance: The Court ruled that assisted suicide is not a fundamental liberty protected by the Constitution. State laws prohibiting assisted suicide are, therefore, constitutional.
By the beginning of the twenty-first century the process of dying had become complicated, involving more choices and actions. Choices about artificial life support in determining how and when an individual dies were common. Historically, assisted suicide had not been one of those choices. Assisted suicide, frequently referred to as physician-assisted suicide, means that one individual, generally a doctor, helps another person take his own life. A physician does this by prescribing a lethal (deadly) dose of a drug that the doctor knows will be used by the patient to commit suicide. The patient dies by human action, not by natural causes.
Felony in Washington
Throughout U.S. history most states prohibited assisted suicide. For example, it has always been a felony (serious) crime to assist a suicide in the state of Washington. Washington's first Territorial Legislature in 1854 outlawed "assisting another in the commission of self murder."
In 1994 four medical physicians from the state of Washington, three gravely ill patients, and Compassion in Dying, a non-profit organization that counsels people considering physician-assisted suicide, decided to challenge the modern-day Washington state law prohibiting physician assisted suicide. The physicians, who occasionally treated terminally ill patients, had said they would assist these patients in ending their lives if
Special Liberties and Due Process
The words "physician-assisted suicide" are certainly never mentioned in the Constitution or Bill of Rights. The type of liberty the plaintiffs referred to is an "unenumerated" liberty or right. Unenumerated liberties are not written into the text of the Constitution or Bill of Rights but come from common law (common practices of individuals carried on for centuries) and philosophy, and are deeply rooted in the U.S. legal system. Such liberties are fundamental (essential) freedoms in which a person may participate relatively free from government interference. A few examples of such liberties are a person's right to marry, have children, raise children, direct their child's education, marital privacy, and the right to refuse life saving medical treatment. These abstract fundamental liberty interests have been recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in various cases and are considered protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This special type of due process protection is known as substantive due process. Substantive due process protects those unenumerated liberties which are generally beyond the reach of governmental interference. The government may not regulate these liberties even by the use of fair procedures.
Is assisted suicide an unenumerated fundamental liberty? If it is, it is protected as the plaintiffs claim. If it is not, it is not protected and the state of Washington may ban it without violating the Fourteenth Amendment.
Let the Courts Decide
The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington ruled assisted suicide a liberty protected by substantive due process and, ruling in favor of the plaintiffs, found the Washington law unconstitutional. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed with the district court. The state of Washington next appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court who agreed to hear the case.
The U.S. Supreme Court, reversing the appeals court decision, ruled assisted suicide is not a fundamental liberty interest, therefore not protected by substantive due process. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the unanimous (9) court.
Determining a Liberty Interest
The Court applied a two-part test to determine what truly is a fundamental liberty interest. First, the fundamental liberty interest must be "deeply rooted in this Nation's history and tradition." On this first point Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote:
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.
Rehnquist continued that assisted suicide was certainly not rooted in U.S. history because it is considered a crime and prohibited in almost every state. The laws make no exception for those persons near death. Further, "the prohibitions have in recent years been reexamined and, for the most part reaffirmed in a number of States." In the year 2000 assisted suicide was legal only in Oregon. Thus, assisted suicide fails the first part of the test.
Second, the fundamental liberty interest must be carefully defined and described. Chief Justice Rehnquist lists the Ninth Circuit Court's various descriptions of the liberty interest as "right to die," "right to control one's final days," and "the liberty to shape death." The Court found that the Ninth Circuit Court did not properly describe the liberty interest. Redefining the liberty in dispute, Rehnquist wrote,
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 [Due Process] Clause includes a right to commit suicide which itself includes a right to assistance in doing so.
Therefore, it also failed the second part of the test. The Court concluded, " . . . the respondents [plaintiffs] asserted [claimed] 'right' to assistance in committing suicide is not a fundamental liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause."
Furthermore, the Court found that Washington's assisted suicide ban was rationally (reasonably) connected to many governmental interests. Some of "these interests include prohibiting intentional killing and preserving human life; preventing the serious public health problem of suicide, . . . maintaining physicians' role as their patients' healers," and protecting vulnerable (aged, mentally retarded, and seriously ill) groups from pressure to end their life.
Refusal of Treatment Versus Assisted Suicide
The Court made it clear that assisted suicide is far different from a competent person's right to refuse unwanted medical treatment, even if it means such refusal would hasten their death. Assisted suicide results in a death caused by another person. When a person dies because they have refused medical treatment, they have essentially died a natural death. Historically, a person has had the right to refuse medical treatment. In Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health (1990) the Court affirmed as a constitutional liberty the right to reject not only life preserving medical treatment but also life sustaining food and water.
An Earnest Debate
The justices did not entirely agree on the reasoning, but all nine agreed that no fundamental right exists to assisted suicide. The Washington law banning assisted suicide was upheld. The decision left it to each individual state to decide how to most appropriately deal with the assisted suicide issue. As the Court concluded,
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.
Assisted suicide was legalized in Oregon in 1997. However, no case challenging the law had reached the courts in its the first few years.
Suggestions for further reading
Longwood College of Virginia Library (A comprehensive guide to doctor assisted suicide websites and literature). [Online] Website: .
Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (all viewpoints including religious). [Online] Website: http://www.religioustolerance.org/euthanas.htm (Accessed on July 31, 2000).
The Hemlock Society. [Online] Website: http://www.hemlock.org (Accessed on July 31, 2000).
Webb, Marilyn, et al. The Good Death: The New American Search to Reshape the End of Life. New York: Bantam Books, 1997.
Woodman, Sue. Last Rights: The Struggle Over the Right to Die. New York: Plenum Press, 1998.