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Washington v. Glucksberg

    Citation. 521 U.S. 702,117 S. Ct. 2258,117 S. Ct. 2302; 138 L. Ed. 2d 772,

    Brief Fact Summary. The Supreme Court of the United States held that a law that prohibits anyone (including physicians) from aiding or causing another to commit suicide is constitutional

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The “liberty” protected by the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution does not include the right to assist suicide.


    Facts. It is a crime to assist suicide in Washington. Petitioners are the State of Washington and its Attorney General. Respondents are physicians who practice medicine in Washington. Respondents occasionally treat terminally ill patients and claim that they would help these patients end their lives if not for Petitioners’ ban on assisted suicides. In January 1993, Respondents, along with three terminally ill patients (who have since died), and a non-profit organization that counsels people considering physician assisted suicide sued in the United Stated District Court claiming that Petitioners’ assisted suicide ban is unconstitutional. The District Court invalidated the statute. The Court of Appeals reversed, but then reversed itself en banc and affirmed the District Court. The en banc decision held that “the Constitution encompasses a due process liberty interest in controlling the time and manner of one’s death” and the state’s assisted suicide ban was unconstitutional.

    Issue. Whether Washington’s prohibition against “causing” or “aiding” a suicide offends the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

    Held. No. The en banc judgment of the Court of Appeals reversed. There is consistent and almost universal tradition that has long rejected the asserted right of assisting suicide. To hold that such a right is fundamental in nature would be to reverse centuries of legal doctrine. Therefore, assisting suicide is not a fundamental right. The Constitution requires the state ban to be rationally related to legitimate government interests. Petitioners have an “unqualified interest in the preservation of human life.” Suicide is a serious health problem. Further, Petitioners have an interest in protecting the integrity and ethics of the medical profession, as well as an interest in protecting vulnerable groups from abuse, neglect and mistakes. The ban on assisting suicide is thus rationally related to these legitimate state interests.

    Concurrence. There is no generalized right to commit suicide. There is no need to address Respondent’s 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.  The majority’s holding does not foreclose the possibility that some applications of the law addressed in the case may be invalid and thus the constitutionality of such a law could prevail in a more particularized challenge.

    The legislature has more competence to address this issue than the Court.  The Court’s formulation of the “liberty” interests is incorrect. Additionally, the majority’s holding does not foreclose the possibility that some applications of the law addressed in the case may be invalid, and thus the constitutionality of such a law could prevail in a more particularized challenge.

    Discussion. Once the Court held that assisting suicide is not a fundamental right, it was easy to satisfy the rational basis test and hold that the law was valid.


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