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Court Cases

U.S. Supreme Court Decisions on Assisted Suicide

This is a brief summary of United States Supreme Court decisions on assisted suicide, giving the citations, date, and holding.

Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702 (1997). In January 1994, Dr. Harold Glucksberg and three other doctors, three terminally ill patients, and an organization called Compassion in Dying filed suit in federal court for a declaration that Washington State’s assisted suicide ban was unconstitutional as applied to terminally ill, mentally competent adults. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided that Washington’s assisted suicide ban was not unconstitutional.

The Court observed that in “almost every State – indeed, in almost every western democracy – it is a crime to assist a suicide. The Court concluded that “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.” The Court declared that to “hold for respondents, we would have to reverse centuries of legal doctrine and practice, and strike down the standard policy choice of almost every state.” Because assisted suicide has been consistently rejected in the history and tradition of our nation, the Court wrote, “the asserted ‘right’ to assistance in committing suicide is not a fundamental liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause.” The Court’s ruling was 9-0.

Vacco v. Quill, 521 U.S. 793 (1997). Dr. Timothy Quill, along with two other physicians and three terminally ill persons, challenged the assisted suicide ban in New York State. They alleged it violated the due-process liberty and equal protection guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that New York’s prohibition on assisting suicide does not violate the equal protection rights of terminally ill adults seeking physician assistance in committing suicide.

The Court rejected the notion that ending or refusing lifesaving medical treatment is nothing more or less than assisted suicide. The Court held that the “distinction comports with fundamental legal principles of causation and intent … when a patient refuses life sustaining medical treatment, he dies from an underlying fatal disease or pathology; but if a patient ingests lethal medication prescribed by a physician, he is killed by that medication.” A doctor who assists in suicide and a patient who consumes a lethal prescription have the specific intent of causing death, “while a patient who refuses or discontinues treatment might not.”

In addition, the Court stated, “On their faces, neither New York’s ban on assisting suicide nor its statutes permitting patients to refuse medical treatment treat anyone differently than anyone else or draw any distinctions between persons. Everyone, regardless of physical condition, is entitled, if competent, to refuse unwanted life-saving medical treatment; no one is permitted to assist a suicide.” The Court’s ruling was 9-0.

Gonzales v. Oregon, 546 U.S. 243 (2006). The Oregon Death with Dignity Act grants civil and criminal immunity to physicians who dispense or prescribe a lethal dose of drugs upon the request of a terminally ill patient. In 2001, the U.S. attorney general issued an Interpretive Rule to address the enforcement of the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) with respect to the Oregon Act, declaring that using controlled substances to assist suicide is not a “legitimate medical purpose” and that dispensing or prescribing them for this purpose is unlawful under the CSA.

The State of Oregon, a physician, a pharmacist, and some terminally ill state residents challenged the Interpretive Rule. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the CSA does not allow the attorney general to prohibit physicians from prescribing federally regulated drugs for use in physician-assisted suicide under a state law permitting prescriptions of lethal drug overdoses upon the request of terminally ill patients.

The Court ruled that the legislative intent of the CSA was to regulate medical practice only insofar as it bars physicians from using their prescription writing powers as a means to engage in illicit drug dealing and trafficking. Beyond this, the Court held that the CSA showed no intent to regulate the practice of medicine generally. The attorney general did not have authority to make a rule declaring illegitimate a medical standard for patient care and treatment specifically authorized under state law. The Court’s ruling was 6-3, with Justices Scalia, Roberts and Thomas dissenting.


This information is courtesy of Wisconsin Right to Life.

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