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

Docket Nº:Nos. 96-110, 95-1858.
Citation:521 U.S. 702, 117 S.Ct. 2302, 138 L.Ed.2d 772
Party Name:WASHINGTON, et al., Petitioners v. Harold GLUCKSBERG et al. Dennis C. VACCO, Attorney General of New York, et al., Petitioners v. Timothy E. QUILL et al.
Case Date:June 26, 1997
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 702

521 U.S. 702 (1997)

117 S.Ct. 2302, 138 L.Ed.2d 772

WASHINGTON, et al., Petitioners


Harold GLUCKSBERG et al.

Dennis C. VACCO, Attorney General of New York, et al., Petitioners


Timothy E. QUILL et al.

Nos. 96-110, 95-1858.

United States Supreme Court.

June 26, 1997


[117 S.Ct. 2302] For opinions of the Court, see 117 S.Ct. 2258 and 117 S.Ct. 2293.

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[117 S.Ct. 2303] Justice O'CONNOR, concurring. [*][d]

Death will be different for each of us. For many, the last days will be spent in physical pain and perhaps the despair that accompanies physical deterioration and a loss of control of basic bodily and mental functions. Some will seek medication to alleviate that pain and other symptoms.

The Court frames the issue in Washington v. Glucksberg as whether the Due Process Clause of the Constitution protects a "right to commit suicide which itself includes a right to assistance in doing so," 521 U.S. 702, 723, 117 S.Ct. 2258, 2269, 138 L.Ed.2d 772, and concludes that our Nation's history, legal traditions, and practices do not support the existence of such a right. I join the Court's opinions because I agree that there is no generalized right to "commit suicide." But respondents urge us to address the narrower question whether a mentally competent person who is experiencing great suffering has a constitutionally cognizable interest in controlling the circumstances of his or her imminent death. I see no need to reach that question in the context of the facial challenges to the New York and Washington laws at issue here. See ibid. ("The Washington statute at issue in this case prohibits 'aid[ing] another person to attempt suicide,'... and, thus, the question before us is whether the 'liberty' specially protected by the Due Process Clause includes a right to commit suicide which itself includes a right to assistance in doing so"). The parties and amici agree that in these States a patient who is

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suffering from a terminal illness and who is experiencing great pain has no legal barriers to obtaining medication, from qualified physicians, to alleviate that suffering, even to the point of causing unconsciousness and hastening death. See Wash. Rev.Code § 70.122.010 (1994); Brief for Petitioners in No. 95-1858, p. 15, n. 9; Brief for Respondents in No. 95-1858, p. 15. In this light, even assuming that we would recognize such an interest, I agree that the State's interests in protecting those who are not truly competent or facing imminent death, or those whose decisions to hasten death would not truly be voluntary, are sufficiently weighty to justify a prohibition against physician-assisted suicide. 521 U.S., at 731-733, 117 S.Ct., at 2273-2274; post, at 2308 (STEVENS, J., concurring in judgments); 521 U.S., at 782-787, 117 S.Ct., at 2290-2293 (SOUTER, J., concurring in judgment).

Every one of us at some point may be affected by our own or a family member's terminal illness. There is no reason to think the democratic process will not strike the proper balance between the interests of terminally ill, mentally competent individuals who would seek to end their suffering and the State's interests in protecting those who might seek to end life mistakenly or under pressure. As the Court recognizes, States are presently undertaking extensive and serious evaluation of physician-assisted suicide and other related issues. 521 U.S., at 716-718, 117 S.Ct., at 2265-2266; see 521 U.S., at 785-788, 117 S.Ct., at 2291-2293 (SOUTER, J., concurring in judgment). In such circumstances, "the ... challenging task of crafting appropriate procedures for safeguarding ... liberty interests is entrusted to the 'laboratory' of the States ... in the first instance." Cruzan v. Director, Mo. Dept. of Health, 497 U.S. 261, 292, 110 S.Ct. 2841, 2859, 111 L.Ed.2d 224 (1990) (O'CONNOR, J., concurring) (citing New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, 285 U.S. 262, 311, 52 S.Ct. 371, 386-387, 76 L.Ed. 747 (1932)).

In sum, there is no need to address the question whether suffering patients have a constitutionally cognizable interest in obtaining relief from the suffering that they may experience in the last days of their lives. There is no dispute that

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dying patients in Washington and New York can obtain palliative care, even when doing so would hasten their deaths. The difficulty in defining terminal illness and the risk that a dying patient's request for assistance in ending his or her life might not be truly voluntary justifies the prohibitions on assisted suicide we uphold here.

[117 S.Ct. 2304] Justice STEVENS, concurring in the judgments. [*]

The Court ends its opinion with the important observation that our holding today is fully consistent with a continuation of the vigorous debate about the "morality, legality, and practicality of physician-assisted suicide" in a democratic society. 521 U.S., at 735, 117 S.Ct., at 2275. I write separately to make it clear that there is also room for further debate about the limits that the Constitution places on the power of the States to punish the practice.


The morality, legality, and practicality of capital punishment have been the subject of debate for many years. In 1976, this Court upheld the constitutionality of the practice in cases coming to us from Georgia,[1] Florida,[2] and Texas[3]. In those cases we concluded that a State does have the power to place a lesser value on some lives than on others; there is no absolute requirement that a State treat all human life as having an equal right to preservation. Because the state legislatures had sufficiently narrowed the category of lives that the State could terminate, and had enacted special procedures to ensure that the defendant belonged in that limited category, we concluded that the statutes were not unconstitutional on their face. In later cases coming to us from each

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of those States, however, we found that some applications of the statutes were unconstitutional. [4]

Today, the Court decides that Washington's statute prohibiting assisted suicide is not invalid "on its face," that is to say, in all or most cases in which it might be applied. [5] That holding, however, does not foreclose the possibility that some applications of the statute might well be invalid.

As originally filed, Washington v. Glucksberg presented a challenge to the Washington statute on its face and as it applied to three terminally ill, mentally competent patients and to four physicians who treat terminally ill patients. After the District Court issued its opinion holding that the statute placed an undue burden on the right to commit physician-assisted suicide, see Compassion in Dying v. Washington, 850 F.Supp. 1454, 1462, 1465 (W.D.Wash.1994), the three patients died. Although the Court of Appeals considered the constitutionality of the statute "as applied to the prescription of life-ending medication for use by terminally ill, competent adult patients who wish to hasten their deaths," Compassion in Dying v. Washington, 79 F.3d 790, 798 (C.A.9 1996), the court did not have before it any individual plaintiff seeking to hasten her death or any doctor who was threatened with prosecution for assisting in the suicide of a particular patient; its analysis and eventual holding that the statute was unconstitutional was not limited to a particular set of plaintiffs before it.

The appropriate standard to be applied in cases making facial challenges to state statutes has been the subject of debate within this Court. See Janklow v. Planned Parenthood, Sioux Falls Clinic, 517 U.S. 1174, 116 S.Ct. 1582, 134 L.Ed.2d 679 (1996). Upholding the validity of the federal Bail Reform Act of 1984, the Court stated in United States v. Salerno, 481 U.S. 739, 107 S.Ct. 2095, 95 L.Ed.2d 697 (1987), that a "facial challenge to a legislative Act is, of course, the most

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difficult challenge to mount successfully, since the challenger must establish that no set of circumstances exists under which the Act would be valid." Id., at 745, 107 S.Ct., at 2100. [6] I do not believe the Court [117 S.Ct. 2305] has ever actually applied such a strict standard,[7] even in Salerno itself, and the Court does not appear to apply Salerno here. Nevertheless, the Court does conceive of respondents' claim as a facial challenge--addressing not the application of the statute to a particular set of plaintiffs before it, but the constitutionality of the statute's categorical prohibition against "aid[ing] another person to attempt suicide." 521 U.S., at 723, 117 S.Ct., at 2269 (internal quotation marks omitted) (citing Wash. Rev.Code § 9A.36.060(1) (1994)). Accordingly, the Court requires the plaintiffs to show that the interest in liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment "includes a right to commit suicide which itself includes a right to assistance in doing so." 521 U.S., at 723, 117 S.Ct., at 2269.

History and tradition provide ample support for refusing to recognize an open-ended constitutional right to commit suicide. Much more than the State's paternalistic interest

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in protecting the individual from the irrevocable consequences of an ill-advised decision motivated by temporary concerns is at stake. There is truth in John Donne's observation that "No man is an island." [8] The State has an interest in preserving and fostering the benefits that every human being may provide to the community--a community that thrives on the exchange of ideas, expressions of affection, shared memories, and humorous incidents, as well as on the material contributions that its members create and support. The value to others of a person's life is far too precious to allow the individual to claim a constitutional entitlement to complete...

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