Washington v. Glucksberg

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Washington v. Glucksberg  (1997) 

Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously held that a right to assistance in committing suicide was not protected by the Due Process Clause.

Court Documents

Supreme Court of the United States

521 U.S. 702

Washington  v.  Glucksberg

Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

No. 96-110  Argued: January 8, 1997 --- Decided: June 26, 1997

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. [p. 703] 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 [p. 704] 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 C. Biddle.

Kathryn L. Tucker argued the cause for respondents. With her on the brief were David J. Burman, Kari Anne Smith, and Laurence H. Tribe.[1]


  1. . Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the State of California et al. by Daniel E. Lungren, Attorney General of California, Robert L. Mukai, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Alvin J. Korobkin, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Thomas S. Lazar, Deputy Attorney General, and by the Attorneys General for their respective jurisdictions as follows: Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Gale A. Norton of Colorado, Robert A. Butterworth of Florida, Michael J. Bowers of Georgia, James E. Ryan of Illinois, Thomas J. Miller of Iowa, Richard P. Ieyoub of Louisiana, J. Joseph Cur- [p. 705] ran, Jr., of Maryland, Frank J. Kelley of Michigan, Mike Moore of Mississippi,

Joseph P. Mazurek of Montana, Don Stenberg of Nebraska, Jeffrey R. Howard of New Hampshire, Dennis C. Vacco of New York, Pedro R. Pierluisi of Puerto Rico, Charles Molony Condon of South Carolina, Mark W. Barnett of South Dakota, Charles W. Burson of Tennessee, and James S. Gilmore III of Virginia; for the State of Oregon by Theodore R. Kulongoski, Attorney General, Thomas A. Balmer, Deputy Attorney General, Virginia L. Linder, Solicitor General, and Stephen K. Bushong, Assistant Attorney General; for Wayne County, Michigan, by John D. O'Hair and Timothy A. Baughman; for the District Attorney of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, by E. Michael McCann, pro se, and John M. Stoiber; for Agudath Israel of America by David Zwiebel and Morton M. Avigdor; for the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging et al. by Joel G. Chefitz and Robert K. Niewijk; for the American Center for Law and Justice by Jay Alan Sekulow, James M. Henderson, Sr., Walter M. Weber, Keith A. Fournier, John G. Stepanovich, and Thomas P. Monaghan; for the American Geriatrics Society by John H. Pickering and Joseph E. Schmitz; for the American Hospital Association by Michael K. Kellogg and Margaret J. Hardy; for the American Medical Association et al. by Carter G. Phillips, Mark E. Haddad, Paul E. Kalb, Katherine L. Adams, Kirk B. Johnson, and Michael L. Ile; for the American Suicide Foundation by Ellen H. Moskowitz, Edward R. Grant, and John F. Cannon; for the Catholic Health Association of the United States by James A. Serritella, James C. Geoly, Kevin R. Gustafson, Thomas C. Shields, Peter M. Leibold, and Charles S. Gilham; for the Catholic Medical Association by Joseph J. Frank, Sergio Alvarez-Mena III, and Peter Buscemi; for the Christian Legal Society et al. by Edward J. Larson, Kimberlee Wood Colby, and Steven T. McFarland; for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America by Edward McGlynn Gaffney, Jr., Susan D. Reece Martyn, Henry J. Bourguignon, and Phillip H. Harris; for the Family Research Council by Cathleen A. Cleaver, Mark A. Rothe, and Edward R. Grant; for the Institute for Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America et al. by Richard B. Stone; for the Legal Center for Defense of Life, Inc., et al. by Dwight G. Duncan and Michael P. Tierney; for the National Association of Prolife Nurses et al. by Jacqulyn Kay Hall; for the National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities et al. by James Bopp, Jr., Thomas J. Marzen, Daniel Avila, and Jane E. T. Brockmann; for the National Hospice Organization by E. Barrett Pretty- [p. 706] man, Jr.; for the National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent & Disabled, Inc., et al. by James Bopp, Jr., Thomas J. Marzen, Daniel Avila, and Jane E. T. Brockmann; for the National Right to Life Committee, Inc., by James Bopp, Jr., and Richard E. Coleson; for the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, Inc., by Leonard F. Zandrow, Jr., and Calum B. Anderson; for the Project on Death in America et al. by Robert A. Burt; for the Rutherford Institute by Gregory D. Smith and John W. Whitehead; for the Schiller Institute by Max Dean; for the United States Catholic Conference et al. by Mark E. Chopko; for Senator Orrin Hatch et al. by Michael W. McConnell; for Members of the New York and Washington State Legislatures by Paul Benjamin Linton and Clarke D. Forsythe; for Bioethics Professors by George J. Annas; for Gary Lee, M. D., et al. by James Bopp, Jr., Bary A. Bostrom, and Richard E. Coleson; and for Richard Thompson by Mr. Thompson, pro se, and Richard H. Browne.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. by Cameron Clark, Karen E. Boxx, and Steven R. Shapiro; for Americans for Death with Dignity et al. by John R. Reese and Page R. Barnes; for the American Medical Student Association et al. by John H. Hall; for the Center for Reproductive Law & Policy by Janet Benshoof and Kathryn Kolbert; for the Coalition of Hospice Professionals by Gerald A. Rosenberg and Frances Kulka Browne; for the Council for Secular Humanism et al. by Ronald A. Lindsay; for Gay Men's Health Crisis et al. by Andrew I. Batavia; for the National Women's Health Network et al. by Sylvia A. Law; for 36 Religious Organizations, Leaders, and Scholars by Barbara McDowell and Gregory A. Castanias; for the Washington State Psychological Association et al. by Edward C. DuMont; for Bioethicists by Martin R. Gold and Robert P. Mulvey; for Law Professors by Charles H. Baron, David A. Hoffman, and Joshua M. Davis; for State Legislators by Sherry F. Colb; and for Julian M. Whitaker, M. D., by Jonathan W. Emord.

Briefs of amici curiae were filed for the American College of Legal Medicine by Miles J. Zaremski, Bruce C. Nelson, and Ila S. Rothschild; for the International Anti-Euthanasia Task Force by Wesley J. Smith; for the Southern Center for Law and Ethics by Tony G. Miller; for Surviving Family Members in Support of Physician-Assisted Dying by Katrin E. Frank, Robert A. Free, and Kathleen Wareham; and for Ronald Dworkin et al. by Mr. Dworkin, pro se, Peter L. Zimroth, Philip H. Curtis, Kent A. Yalowitz, Anand Agneshwar, and Abe Krash.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).