No right is held more sacred, or is more carefully guarded, by the common law, than the right of every individual to the possession and control of his own person, free from all restraint or interference of others, unless by clear and unquestionable authority of law. This notion has been embodied in the requirement that informed consent is generally required for medical treatment. A surgeon who performs an operation without his patient's consent commits an assault, for which he is liable in damages. The informed consent doctrine has become firmly entrenched in American tort law.
Petitioner Nancy Cruzan is incompetent, having sustained severe injuries in an automobile accident, and now lies in a Missouri state hospital in what is referred to as a persistent vegetative state: generally, a condition in which a person exhibits motor reflexes but evinces no indications of significant cognitive function. The State is bearing the cost of her care. Hospital employees refused, without court approval, to honor the request of Cruzan's parents, copetitioners here, to terminate her artificial nutrition and hydration, because that would result in death. A state trial court authorized the termination, finding that a person in Cruzan's condition has a fundamental right under the State and Federal Constitutions to direct or refuse the withdrawal of death-prolonging procedures, and that Cruzan's expression to a former housemate that she would not wish to continue her life if sick or injured unless she could live at least halfway normally suggested that she would not wish to continue on with her nutrition and hydration.
Is the right to refuse treatment embodied in the common-law doctrine of informed consent, applicable in this case?
The Court affirmed the judgment denying a court order directing the withdrawal of petitioners' daughter's artificial feeding and hydration equipment because the U.S. Constitution did not require the state to repose judgment on matters concerning the right to refuse treatment with anyone but the patient herself. It said that the Due Process Clause, U.S. Const. amend. XIV, did not require the state to repose judgment on matters concerning the right to refuse treatment with anyone but the patient herself. The Court held that a state could choose to defer only to the patient's wishes rather than confide the decision to close family members.