Washington v. Glucksberg

Following is the case brief for Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702 (1997)

Case Summary of Washington v. Glucksberg:

  • Four doctors, three terminally ill patients, and a non-profit group brought a suit challenging the State of Washington’s ban on physician-assisted suicide.
  • They argued that the ban was unconstitutional because it violated due process.
  • The District Court and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the ban was unconstitutional.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court, however, held that the Due Process Clause is not violated by laws prohibiting physician-assisted suicide.

Washington v. Glucksberg Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

The State of Washington has historically made the promotion of suicide a crime, and the most recent State law prohibited assisted suicide.  Dr. Harold Glucksberg, three other doctors, three terminally ill people, and the non-profit group Compassion in Dying – an organization that provided guidance for people considering assisted suicide – challenged the Washington State law in federal court.

They argued that the “right to die with dignity” was a fundamental liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Procedural History:

  • The District Court agreed that the prohibition on assisted suicide was unconstitutional.
  • On appeal, one panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals voted to reverse.
  • However, the Ninth Circuit ultimately affirmed the District Court’s decision following a hearing en banc.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Does a law prohibiting assisted suicide violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?  No.

Judgment:

The decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is reversed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

There is no fundamental liberty interest in assisted suicide such that a State would be wrong to ban the practice.

Reasoning:

A review of our country’s history, legal traditions, and practices show that assisted suicide has been either punished or met with disapproval for over 700 years.  Assisted suicide is a crime in almost every State in the country.

The prohibitions on assisted suicide have been recently reexamined and, for the most part, reaffirmed in many States.  Also, the President signed the Federal Assisted Suicide Funding Restriction Act of 1997, prohibiting the use of federal funds for physician-assisted suicide.

All of the above leads to the conclusion that the right to assisted suicide is not a fundamental liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause.

In evaluating a substantive due process challenge, the Court must see if a right is rooted in this Nation’s history, and that the liberty interest is “carefully described.”  Here, the right is not rooted in our history, and the liberty interest has been described in many different ways.

We see the interest being asserted here as whether there is a “right to commit suicide which itself includes a right to assistance in doing so.”  We do not believe such a right is fundamental in our society.  The right asserted here is different than the right to refuse medical treatment.  The difference is in dying from natural causes versus inducing death from medication.

Finally, Washington’s law is rationally related to a legitimate government interest.  The State has a legitimate interest in life, in preventing suicide, in medical ethics, and in protecting those who may not actually consent to life-ending medication.

The debate this country is having over assisted suicide should continue, and this Court need not stifle the debate at this point.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (O’Connor):

The respondents in this case urge not a general right to “commit suicide.”  Rather, they seek an answer to the narrower question as to whether a mentally competent person, who is experiencing immense suffering, has a constitutionally recognizable interest in controlling the circumstances of his or her imminent death.  In the context of this case, there is no reason to reach that question.

Concurring Opinion (Stevens):

While the Court’s holding is consistent with allowing a vigorous debate on the assisted-suicide issue to continue, it should be noted that there is also room for debate on the constitutional limits on a State to punish the practice of assisted suicide.

Concurring Opinion (Souter):

There are strong liberty interests on both sides of this debate, and the Court properly remained out of the debate on this emerging issue.  State legislatures should have the freedom to consider this issue.  While the right to assisted suicide should not be foreclosed for all time, it is properly being debated in State legislatures throughout the country.

Concurring Opinion (Ginsburg):

Justice Ginsburg concurs for the reasons stated in Justice O’Connor’s concurring opinion.

Concurring Opinion (Breyer):

Justice O’Connor’s opinion has more significance than the Court’s opinion my suggest.  In a different case, in which a patient seeks to avoid pain at the end of life, the Court would likely have to revisit its conclusions.

Significance:

Washington v. Glucksberg is a landmark case because it holds that assisted suicide is not a right protected by the Due Process Clause.  When compared to the Cruzan v. Missouri Department of Health decision, it creates a distinction between recognizing a right to accept a natural death (Cruzan) and not recognizing a right to induce death when a person could naturally remain alive (Glucksberg).

Student Resources:

Read the Court’s Full Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments

 

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