521 U.S. 702 (1997), 96-110, Washington v. Glucksberg

Docket Nº:No: 96-110
Citation:521 U.S. 702, 117 S.Ct. 2258, 138 L.Ed.2d 772, 65 U.S.L.W. 4669
Party Name:WASHINGTON et al. v. GLUCKSBERG et al.
Case Date:June 26, 1997
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 702

521 U.S. 702 (1997)

117 S.Ct. 2258, 138 L.Ed.2d 772, 65 U.S.L.W. 4669

WASHINGTON et al.

v.

GLUCKSBERG et al.

No: 96-110

United States Supreme Court

June 26, 1997

Argued January 8, 1997

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEAL FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

It has always been a crime to assist a suicide in the State of Washington. The State's present law makes "[p]romoting a suicide attempt" a felony, and provides: "A person is guilty of [that crime] when he knowingly causes or aids another person to attempt suicide." Respondents, four Washington physicians who occasionally treat terminally ill, suffering patients, declare that they would assist these patients in ending their lives if not for the State's assisted-suicide ban. They, along with three gravely ill plaintiffs who have since died and a nonprofit organization that counsels people considering physician-assisted suicide, filed this suit against petitioners, the State and its Attorney General, seeking a declaration that the ban is, on its face, unconstitutional. They assert a liberty interest protected by the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause which extends to a personal choice by a mentally competent, terminally ill adult to commit physician-assisted suicide. Relying primarily on Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, and Cruzan v. Director, Mo. Dept. of Health, 497 U.S. 261, the Federal District Court agreed, concluding that Washington's assisted-suicide ban is unconstitutional because it places an undue burden on the exercise of that constitutionally protected liberty interest. The en banc Ninth Circuit affirmed.

Held:

Washington's prohibition against "caus[ing]" or "aid[ing]" a suicide does not violate the Due Process Clause. Pp. 710-736.

(a) An examination of our Nation's history, legal traditions, and practices demonstrates that Anglo-American common law has punished or otherwise disapproved of assisting suicide for over 700 years; that rendering such assistance is still a crime in almost every State; that such prohibitions have never contained exceptions for those who were near death; that the prohibitions have in recent years been reexamined and, for the most part, reaffirmed in a number of States; and that the President recently signed the Federal Assisted Suicide Funding Restriction Act of 1997, which prohibits the use of federal funds in support of physician-assisted suicide. Pp. 710-719.

(b) In light of that history, this Court's decisions lead to the conclusion that respondents' asserted "right" to assistance in committing suicide is not a fundamental liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause.

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The Court's established method of substantive-due-process analysis has two primary features: First, the Court has regularly observed that the Clause specially protects those fundamental rights and liberties which are, objectively, deeply rooted in this Nation's history and tradition. E. g., Moore v. East Cleveland, 431 U.S. 494, 503 (plurality opinion). Second, the Court has required a "careful description" of the asserted fundamental liberty interest. E. g., Reno v. Flores, 507 U.S. 292, 302. The Ninth Circuit's and respondents' various descriptions of the interest here at stake— e. g., a right to "determin[e] the time and manner of one's death," the "right to die," a "liberty to choose how to die," a right to "control of one's final days," "the right to choose a humane, dignified death," and "the liberty to shape death"—run counter to that second requirement. Since the Washington statute prohibits "aid[ing] another person to attempt suicide," the question before the Court is more properly characterized as whether the "liberty" specially protected by the Clause includes a right to commit suicide which itself includes a right to assistance in doing so. This asserted right has no place in our Nation's traditions, given the country's consistent, almost universal, and continuing rejection of the right, even for terminally ill, mentally competent adults. To hold for respondents, the Court would have to reverse centuries of legal doctrine and practice, and strike down the considered policy choice of almost every State. Respondents' contention that the asserted interest is consistent with this Court's substantive-due-process cases, if not with this Nation's history and practice, is unpersuasive. The constitutionally protected right to refuse lifesaving hydration and nutrition that was discussed in Cruzan, supra, at 279, was not simply deduced from abstract concepts of personal autonomy, but was instead grounded in the Nation's history and traditions, given the common-law rule that forced medication was a battery, and the long legal tradition protecting the decision to refuse unwanted medical treatment. And although Casey recognized that many of the rights and liberties protected by the Due Process Clause sound in personal autonomy, 505 U.S., at 852, it does not follow that any and all important, intimate, and personal decisions are so protected, see San Antonio Independent School Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, 33-34. Casey did not suggest otherwise. Pp. 719-728.

(c) The constitutional requirement that Washington's assisted-suicide ban be rationally related to legitimate government interests, see, e. g., Heller v. Doe, 509 U.S. 312, 319-320, is unquestionably met here. These interests include prohibiting intentional killing and preserving human life; preventing the serious public-health problem of suicide, especially among the young, the elderly, and those suffering from untreated pain or from depression or other mental disorders; protecting

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the medical profession's integrity and ethics and maintaining physicians' role as their patients' healers; protecting the poor, the elderly, disabled persons, the terminally ill, and persons in other vulnerable groups from indifference, prejudice, and psychological and financial pressure to end their lives; and avoiding a possible slide toward voluntary and perhaps even involuntary euthanasia. The relative strengths of these various interests need not be weighed exactingly, since they are unquestionably important and legitimate, and the law at issue is at least reasonably related to their promotion and protection. Pp. 728-735.

79 F.3d 790, reversed and remanded. Rehnquist, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, JJ., joined. O'Connor, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which Ginsburg and Breyer, JJ., joined in part, post, p. 736. Stevens, J., post, p. 738, Souter, J., post, p. 752, Ginsburg, J., post, p. 789, and Breyer, J., post, p. 789, filed opinions concurring in the judgment.

William L. Williams, Senior Assistant Attorney General of Washington, argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Christine O. Gregoire, Attorney General, and William Berggren Collins, Senior Assistant Attorney General.

Acting Solicitor General Dellinger argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal. With him on the brief were Assistant Attorney General Hunger, Deputy Solicitor General Waxman, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Preston, Irving L. Gornstein, and Barbara

Kathryn L. Tucker argued the cause for respondents. With her on the brief were David J. Burman, Kari Anne Smith, and Laurence H. Tribe. [*]

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Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented in this case is whether Washington's prohibition against "caus[ing]" or "aid[ing]" a suicide

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offends the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. We hold that it does not. It has always been a crime to assist a suicide in the State of Washington. In 1854, Washington's first Territorial

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Legislature outlawed "assisting another in the commission of self-murder."[1] Today, Washington law provides: "A person is guilty of promoting a suicide attempt when he knowingly causes or aids another person to attempt suicide." Wash. Rev. Code § 9A.36.060(1) (1994). "Promoting a suicide attempt" is a felony, punishable by up to five years' imprisonment and up to a $10,000 fine. §§ 9A.36.060(2) and 9A.20.021(1)(c). At the same time, Washington's Natural Death Act, enacted in 1979, states that the "withholding or withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment" at a patient's direction "shall not, for any purpose, constitute a suicide." Wash. Rev. Code § 70.122.070(1).[2] Petitioners in this case are the State of Washington and its Attorney General. Respondents Harold Glucksberg, M. D., Abigail Halperin, M. D., Thomas A. Preston, M. D., and Peter Shalit, M. D., are physicians who practice in Washington. These doctors occasionally treat terminally ill, suffering patients, and declare that they would assist these patients in ending their lives if not for Washington's assisted-suicide ban.[3] In January 1994, respondents, along with three gravely ill, pseudonymous plaintiffs who have since died and

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Compassion in Dying, a nonprofit organization that counsels people considering physician-assisted suicide, sued in the United States District Court, seeking a declaration that Wash. Rev. Code § 9A.36.060(1) (1994) is, on its face, unconstitutional. Compassion in Dying v. Washington, 850 F.Supp. 1454, 1459 (WD Wash. 1994).[4] The plaintiffs asserted "the existence of a liberty interest protected by the Fourteenth Amendment which extends to a personal choice by a mentally competent, terminally ill adult to commit physician-assisted suicide." Ibid. Relying primarily on Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992), and Cruzan v. Director, Mo. Dept. of Health, 497 U.S. 261 (1990), the District Court agreed, 850 F. Supp., at 1459-1462, and concluded that Washington's assisted-suicide ban is unconstitutional because it "places an undue burden on the...

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