Washington v. Glucksberg

521 U.S. 702, 117 S. Ct. 2258, 117 S. Ct. 2302 (1997)



In addition to the specific freedoms protected by the Bill of Rights, the "liberty" specially protected by the Due Process Clause, U.S. Const. amend. XIV, includes the rights to marry, to have children, to direct the education and upbringing of one's children, to marital privacy, to use contraception, to bodily integrity, and to abortion, the United States Supreme Court has also assumed that the Due Process Clause protects the traditional right to refuse unwanted lifesaving medical treatment.


A Washington state statute enacted in 1975 provided that a person was guilty of the felony of promoting a suicide attempt when the person knowingly caused or aided another person to attempt suicide. In 1994, an action was brought in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington by several plaintiffs, among whom were (1) physicians who occasionally treated terminally ill, suffering patients, and (2) individuals who were then in the terminal phases of serious and painful illnesses. The plaintiffs, asserting the existence of a liberty interest protected by the Federal Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment which extended to a personal choice by a mentally competent, terminally ill adult to commit physician-assisted suicide, sought a declaratory judgment that the Washington statute was unconstitutional on its face. 


Does the Washington statute prohibiting the aiding of suicide violate the Fourteenth Amendment?




The Court held that the assisted-suicide ban was rationally related to a legitimate government interest because Washington sought to preserve human life and also uphold the integrity and ethics of the medical profession. Additionally, Washington's statute sought to protect vulnerable groups, such as the poor, elderly, and disabled from abuse, neglect, and mistakes. Finally, the Court held that Washington's ban on assisted-suicide effectively prevented a broader license to voluntary or involuntary euthanasia.

The Washington statute did not violate the due process clause--either on the statute's face or as the statute was applied to competent, terminally ill adults who wished to hasten their deaths by obtaining medication prescribed by their physicians--because (1) pursuant to careful formulation of the interest at stake, the question was whether the liberty specially protected by the due process clause included a right to commit suicide which itself included a right to assistance in doing so; (2) an examination of the nation's history, legal traditions, and practices revealed that the asserted right to assistance in committing suicide was not a fundamental liberty interest protected by the due process clause; (3) the asserted right to assistance in committing suicide was not consistent with the Supreme Court's substantive due process line of cases; and (4) the state's assisted suicide ban was at least reasonably related to the promotion and protection of a number of Washington's important and legitimate interests.

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