High Court Rejects Constitutional Right To Doctor-Assisted Suicide

June 26, 1997 12:00 am

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Thursday, June 26, 1997

WASHINGTON — Ruling separately in two cases, the United States Supreme Court unanimously held today that the Constitution does not protect the right of terminally ill patients to doctor assisted suicide.

The decisions, which were both written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, overturn federal appeals court rulings from Washington and New York that followed different legal paths to uphold, almost simultaneously, a patient’s right to receive help in dying.

“Attitudes towards suicide have changed,” said Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, “but our laws have consistently condemned, and continue to prohibit, assisting suicide. Despite changes in medical technology and notwithstanding the increased emphasis on the importance of end of life decision making, we have not retreated from this prohibition.”

Recognizing the gravity of the decisions, Rehnquist added: “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.”

Five justices wrote separate concurring opinions which, to varying degrees, recognized a distinction between a “generalized” right to die and a more narrowly focused right of terminally ill patients suffering intolerable pain to determine the timing of their imminent death.

“Given the number of different opinions, it is unlikely that today’s decisions will end the debate over the right to die, which is virtually certain to continue in both legislatures and courtrooms around the country,” said Steven R. Shapiro, the ACLU’s National Legal Director. The ACLU joined 17 religious, elderly, AIDS and euthanasia groups in a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the lower court decisions.

“Each of us should have the right to die in a humane and dignified manner,” added Shapiro. “The exercise of this right is as central to personal autonomy and bodily integrity as rights safeguarded by this Court’s decisions relating to marriage, family relationships, procreation, contraception, child rearing and the refusal or termination of life-saving medical treatment.”

In the Washington State case, Chief Justice Rehnquist rejected the argument that terminally ill patients have a “liberty interest in choosing the time and manner of one’s death” and that denying that right infringed on a person’s Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of due process.

In the New York State case, the Chief Justice drew a distinction between physician assisted suicide and its 1990 decision, Cruzan v. Missouri Department of Health, upholding the right of individuals to avoid unwanted medical treatment, including treatment that is life sustaining. The Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in New York had held that there was no clear legal difference between the two.

“This Court has also recognized, at least implicitly, the distinction between letting a patient die and making that patient die,” Rehnquist wrote. “But our assumption of a right to refuse treatment was grounded not, as the Court of Appeals supposed, on the proposition that patients have a general and abstract ‘right to hasten death.’ but on well established, traditional rights to bodily integrity and freedom from unwanted touching.”

Both cases were brought by a group of physicians and their terminally ill patients who sought to end their suffering, but couldn’t because of their states’ ban on assisted suicide. The six patients from the two cases have since died.

Few decisions by the Supreme Court have such a profound impact on the every day lives of Americans. As the ACLU noted in its brief, the practice of doctor assisted suicide is deeply rooted in our nation’s history and tradition, and dates back as least as far as the Greek and Roman philosophers.

“There is nothing new about the desire of terminally ill patient to end their suffering by hastening their death,” Shapiro said. “Developments in modern health care have simply brought into the open a previously private that society has long condoned.”

Founded in 1920, the ACLU is a national, non-partisan organization committed to defending the Bill of Rights through litigation, legislation and pubic education. With the exception of the Justice Department, the ACLU is involved in more cases before the Supreme Court than any other individual or organization.

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