LOCATION: Dr. Harold Glucksberg's Residence
DOCKET NO.: 96-110
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
CITATION: 521 US 702 (1997)
ARGUED: Jan 08, 1997
DECIDED: Jun 26, 1997
Kathryn L. Tucker - Argued the cause of the respondents
Walter E. Dellinger, III - on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae
William L. Williams - Argued the cause for the petitioners
Facts of the case
Dr. Harold Glucksberg -- along with four other physicians, three terminally ill patients who have since died, and a nonprofit organization that counsels individuals contemplating physician assisted-suicide -- brought this suit challenging the state of Washington's ban on physician assisted-suicide. The State of Washington has historically criminalized the promotion of suicide attempts by those who "knowingly cause or aid another person to attempt suicide." Glucksberg alleged that Washington's ban was unconstitutional. Following a District Court ruling favoring Glucksberg and his fellow petitioners, the Ninth Circuit affirmed and the Supreme Court granted Washington certiorari.
Did Washington's ban on physician assisted-suicide violate the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause by denying competent terminally ill adults the liberty to choose death over life?
Media for Washington v. GlucksbergAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 08, 1997 in Washington v. Glucksberg
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 26, 1997 in Washington v. Glucksberg
William H. Rehnquist:
The second opinion which I have to announce is Washington against Glucksberg, No. 96-110, and this case too deals with physician-assisted suicide.
In Washington State, it is a crime to knowingly cause or aid another person to commit suicide.
The question presented here is whether this prohibition on assisted suicide violates the Fourteenth Amendment.
Respondents are doctors who claim that competent, terminally ill adults have a constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide.
The en banc Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, relying primarily on our decision in Cruzan and Planned Parenthood versus Casey agreed.
That court held that the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment includes the right to choose the time and manner of one’s death and that the Washington statute was therefore unconstitutional.
In an opinion filed today with the Clerk, we reverse that judgment.
In our opinion, we review, at length, our nation’s history, traditions, and practice relating to suicide and assisting suicide.
Washington’s assisted suicide ban is no innovation.
Quite the contrary, for centuries, our Anglo-American legal tradition has punished or otherwise disapproved the both suicide and assisting suicide.
It is true that attitudes towards suicide itself have changed over the years, but it is still regarded as a grave public wrong.
Today, because of advances in medicine and technology, Americans are increasingly likely to die in institutions.
This fact has focused public attention on the question of how to protect people’s dignity and independence at the end of life.
As a result, many states now permit living wills and the withdrawal or refusal of life sustaining medical treatment.
At the same time, however, voters and legislators continue to reaffirm the longstanding prohibition on assisting suicide.
Turning now, the respondent’s constitutional claim, it is established that Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provides heightened protection for certain fundamental rights such as the right to marry, to have children, to refuse unwanted medical treatment.
Out of respect for the democratic process and to prevent judges from over reaching in its often difficult area, we have repeatedly emphasized that fundamental rights are those that are deeply rooted in our nation’s tradition.
We have also insisted that the fundamental right at issue in a particular due process case be framed rather precisely.
Thus, the issue before us today is not the broad question of whether there is a constitutional right to determine the time and manner of one’s death but instead whether the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause includes a right to commit physician-assisted suicide.
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.
Respondent’s argument is supported neither by tradition nor by our case in Cruzan decision.
We therefore conclude that the asserted right to assistant in committing suicide is not a fundamental liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause.
We also conclude that it is rationally related to legitimate state interest.
Washington has valid interest in protecting all human lives from beginning to end and preventing suicide, treating depression, preserving the integrity and ethics of the medical profession, and in protecting the poor, the elderly, and disabled persons from abuse, neglect, and prejudice and in preventing a Netherlands style slide to voluntary and perhaps even involuntary euthanasia.
We therefore hold that Washington’s ban on assisted suicide does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment.
Justice O’Connor has filed a concurring opinion in which Justices Ginsburg and Breyer join in part; Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer have filed opinions concurring in the judgment.