Neil Gorsuch, JD, DPhil, Federal Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, in his 2000 Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy article "The Right to Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia," written while working in private practice at a Washington, DC law firm, explained:
"In the mid-1990s euthanasia proponents turned to the courts in Washington and New York, seeking to have laws against assisting suicide declared unconstitutional. Wildly disparate lower court rulings resulted. One federal district court found a constitutional right to assisted suicide [Compassion in Dying v. Washington] another found that no such right exists [Quill v. Koppell]. The appellate courts reviewing these decisions produced even more fractured opinions [Compassion in Dying v. Washington and Quill v. Vacco]. Eventually the cases culminated in argument before the United States Supreme Court [Washington v. Glucksberg and Vacco v. Quill]. The Court's 9-0 decisions upheld the Washington and New York laws banning assisted suicide and were hailed as a major victory for assisted suicide opponents. Few noticed at the time, however, that critical concurring Justices viewed the cases as raising only facial challenges to laws against assisting suicide and reserved the right to consider in later cases whether those laws are unconstitutional as applied to terminally ill adults who wish to die. Thus, far from definitively resolving the issue, the Court's decisions only assure that the coming decade will witness even more debate over assisted suicide and euthanasia than the last...
Since the New Jersey State Supreme Court decided the first right-to-refuse case in 1976 [In re Quinlan], virtually every state in the Nation has recognized the right of at least competent adults to refuse even basic, life-sustaining medical care, like tubes supplying food and water. Given the widespread acceptance of such a right, the question follows whether assisted suicide and euthanasia must also be accepted. If patients have a right to tell their doctors to remove respirators or feeding tubes, in fairness should they also have a right to tell their doctors to administer lethal injections?
The Second Circuit answered this question in the affirmative, as did the federal district court in the Washington State litigation. The Supreme Court disagreed, but only over Justice Stevens's vigorous dissent and only in the context of a facial challenge. No majority ruling has decided whether a right to euthanasia and assistance in suicide exists as applied to rational, terminally ill patients."
[Editor's Note: As of Aug. 11, 2014, four US states have legalized physician-assisted suicide (Montana, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington) and 46 US states consider physician-assisted suicide illegal. See our "State-by-State Guide to Physician-Assisted Suicide" page for information on each state's laws.
There are no federal laws about euthanasia but the act is prohibited under general homicide laws. Assisted-suicide laws are generally handled at the state level.]
Is There a Legal Right to Die?
In Morris v. New Mexico the New Mexico Second Judicial District in a Jan. 13, 2014 ruling by Judge Nan Nash stated:
"Most fundamental rights have been attached to our system of government and an inherent concept of liberty. Some rights have been of a more personal nature such as the right of parents in the care, custody and control of their children,... the freedom of personal choice in matters of family life,... and the right to family integrity...
This Court cannot envision a right more fundamental, more private or more integral to the liberty, safety and happiness of a New Mexican than the right of a competent, terminally ill patient to choose aid in dying. If decisions made in the shadow of one’s imminent death regarding how they and their loved ones will face that death are not fundamental and at the core of these constitutional guarantees, than what decisions are? As recognized by the United States Supreme Court in Cruzan '[t]he choice between life and death is a deeply personal decision of obvious and overwhelming finality.'...
The Court therefore declares that the liberty, safety and happiness interest of a competent, terminally ill patient to choose aid in dying is a fundamental right under our New Mexico Constitution."
The American Civil Liberties Union, in its Oct. 1996 amicus brief from Vacco v. Quill, stated:
"The right of a competent, terminally ill person to avoid excruciating pain and embrace a timely and dignified death bears the sanction of history and is implicit in the concept of ordered liberty. 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 particular, this Court's recent decisions concerning the right to refuse medical treatment and the right to abortion instruct that a mentally competent, terminally ill person has a protected liberty interest in choosing to end intolerable suffering by bringing about his or her own death.
A state's categorical ban on physician assistance to suicide -- as applied to competent, terminally ill patients who wish to avoid unendurable pain and hasten inevitable death -- substantially interferes with this protected liberty interest and cannot be sustained."
In Quill v. Vacco, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit stated in its Apr. 2, 1996 ruling (3-0):
"It seems clear that New York does not treat similarly circumstanced persons alike: those in the final stages of terminal illness who are on life-support systems are allowed to hasten their deaths by directing the removal of such systems; but those who are similarly situated, except for the previous attachment of life-sustaining equipment, are not allowed to hasten death by self-administering prescribed drugs...
What interest can the state possibly have in requiring the prolongation of a life that is all but ended?... And what business is it of the state to require the continuation of agony when the result is imminent and inevitable? What concern prompts the state to interfere with a mentally competent patient's 'right to define [his] own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,' [Planned Parenthood v. Casey] when the patient seeks to have drugs prescribed to end life during the final stages of a terminal illness? The greatly reduced interest of the state in preserving life compels the answer to these questions: 'None'...
The New York statutes criminalizing assisted suicide violate the Equal Protection Clause because, to the extent that they prohibit a physician from prescribing medications to be self-administered by a mentally competent, terminally-ill person in the final stages of his terminal illness, they are not rationally related to any legitimate state interest."
[Editors Note:This opinion was later overturned by the Supreme Court in Vacco v. Quill]
In Compassion in Dying v. Washington, the United States 9th Circuit Court of Appeals stated in its Mar. 6, 1996 ruling (8-3):
"While some people refer to the liberty interest implicated in right-to-die cases as a liberty interest in committing suicide, we do not describe it that way. We use the broader and more accurate terms, 'the right to die,' 'determining the time and manner of one's death,' and 'hastening one's death' for an important reason. The liberty interest we examine encompasses a whole range of acts that are generally not considered to constitute 'suicide.' Included within the liberty interest we examine, is for example, the act of refusing or terminating unwanted medical treatment...
Casey and Cruzan provide persuasive evidence that the Constitution encompasses a due process liberty interest in controlling the time and manner of one's death -- that there is, in short, a constitutionally recognized 'right to die.'
[Editors Note: This opinion was later overturned by the Supreme Court in Washington v. Glucksberg]
Tom Coburn, MD, US Senator (R-OK), in the Oct. 27, 1999 consideration of House Resolution 2260, Pain Relief Promotion Act of 1999 (which passed the House but died in the Senate), available at www.gpo.gov, stated:
"Do we want doctors deciding who lives and who dies? No, we do not want that. This is a slope, a real slope where we are going to become God. We do not have that power. The Declaration of Independence says that we should have the right to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Nothing in it says we have the right to pursue death, nothing."
In Washington v. Glucksberg, the US Supreme Court declared in its June 26, 1997 ruling (9-0):
"The history of the law's treatment of assisted suicide in this country has been and continues to be one of the rejection of nearly all efforts to permit it. That being the case, our decisions lead us to conclude that the asserted 'right' to assistance in committing suicide is not a fundamental liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause. "
In Vacco v. Quill, the US Supreme Court, in its June 26, 1997 ruling (9-0) stated:
"Even as the States move to protect and promote patients' dignity at the end of life, they remain opposed to physician assisted suicide.
New York is a case in point. The State enacted its current assisted suicide statutes in 1965. Since then, New York has acted several times to protect patients' common law right to refuse treatment... In so doing, however, the State has neither endorsed a general right to 'hasten death' nor approved physician assisted suicide. Quite the opposite: The State has reaffirmed the line between 'killing' and 'letting die'...
This Court has also recognized, at least implicitly, the distinction between letting a patient die and making that patient die. In Cruzan v. Director, Mo. Dept. of Health (1990), we concluded that '[t]he principle that a competent person has a constitutionally protected liberty interest in refusing unwanted medical treatment may be inferred from our prior decisions,' and we assumed the existence of such a right for purposes of that case. 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. In fact, we observed that 'the majority of States in this country have laws imposing criminal penalties on one who assists another to commit suicide.'"
The New York State Task Force on Life and Law argued in its May 1994 report When Death Is Sought: Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia in the Medical Context:
"The fact that the refusal of treatment and suicide may both lead to death does not mean that they implicate identical constitutional concerns. The imposition of life-sustaining medical treatment against a patient's will requires a direct invasion of bodily integrity and, in some cases, the use of physical restraints, both of which are flatly inconsistent with society's basic conception of personal dignity... It is this right against intrusion--not a general right to control the timing and manner of death--that forms the basis of the constitutional right to refuse life-sustaining treatment. Restrictions on suicide, by contrast, entail no such intrusions, but simply prevent individuals from intervening in the natural process of dying.
While restrictions on suicide do limit individual autonomy, the bare fact that individual options are constrained does not render such limits unconstitutional... Indeed, in recent years the Supreme Court has afforded constitutional protection only to those individual practices 'deeply rooted in this Nation's history and tradition.' While the merits of this constitutional doctrine are subject to debate, its effect on the constitutional distinction between the refusal of treatment and suicide is clear. On the one hand, the right to refuse treatment has a well-established history in the laws of informed consent and battery. On the other hand, individuals have never been granted a right to control the timing and manner of their death; indeed, suicide was illegal in many states for most of this nation's history, and, even after decriminalization, society continues to discourage suicide and seek to prevent individuals from taking their own lives. The historical opposition to suicide, while neither necessary nor sufficient to the Task Force's own constitutional analysis, makes it virtually inconceivable that the United States Supreme Court would recognize a constitutional right to commit suicide."