The Court Upholds a State Law Prohibiting Physician-Assisted Suicide

By Feinberg, Brett | Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

The Court Upholds a State Law Prohibiting Physician-Assisted Suicide


Feinberg, Brett, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology


Vacco v. Quill, 117 S. Ct. 2293 (1997)

I. INTRODUCTION

In Vacco v. Quill,(1) the United States Supreme Court addressed whether a terminally ill person has a constitutionally protected right to commit suicide with the assistance of a physician.(2) The Court held that state laws prohibiting physician-assisted suicide are constitutionally permissible since they do not violate the Equal Protection Clause.(3) In making its decision, the Court determined that the right to die with assistance is not a fundamental right.(4) The Court also concluded that the withdrawal of lifesaving medical treatment is distinguishable from physician-assisted suicide.(5)

This Note argues that the Supreme Court incorrectly concluded that the right to die with assistance is not a fundamental right.(6) In addition, this Note contends that the Court improperly distinguished withdrawal of lifesaving equipment from physician-assisted suicide.(7) This Note further argues that the state has no legitimate interest in preventing terminally ill patients from seeking assistance from a physician to hasten their death.(8) Finally, this Note addresses the ramifications of the Court's decision.(9)

II. BACKGROUND

A. THE "RIGHT TO DIE"

Physician-assisted suicide involves a doctor's performance of an act that results in the patient's death.(10) The debate over physician-assisted suicide begins with the judicially recognized "right to die."(11) The term "right to die" refers to an individual's right to discontinue lifesaving medical treatment, even though the patient will die if treatment is ended.(12)

The "right to die" developed as a judicial response to patients' desires to make critical decisions regarding their own treatment, decisions traditionally left to the discretion of the doctor.(13) Beginning with the 1976 case In re Quinlan,(14) courts, physicians, and the public grew to accept the idea that patient autonomy, in certain circumstances, extends to life-or-death treatment decisions. The New Jersey Supreme Court was the first court to issue a written decision recognizing the right to refuse life-sustaining treatment in Quinlan.(15) The case involved Karen Ann Quinlan, a twenty-two-year-old female who was in a persistent vegetative state.(16) The condition resulted from two fifteen-minute periods in which she had stopped breathing.(17) Karen's parents wanted to disconnect their daughter's respirator and other devices which were keeping her alive.(18)

The New Jersey Supreme Court held that Karen had a constitutional right to be removed from the lifesaving treatment and that her guardian father could exercise that right on her behalf.(19) The court explained that this right to die emanated from the constitutional right of privacy.(20) Although the court acknowledged that the state had a strong interest in preserving life, it reasoned that the state's interest is attenuated when there is no chance of the patient regaining cognitive life and is outweighed by the attendant bodily invasion necessitated by medical care.(21)

Thus, Quinlan established precedent permitting terminally ill patients to withdraw from lifesaving treatment. More importantly, Quinlan lay the foundation for the principle later espoused by the Supreme Court: A patient has the right to end life-sustaining treatment so long as there is clear and convincing evidence of the individual's wish for withdrawal of treatment.(22)

The Supreme Court addressed the "right to die" in Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health.(23) Cruzan presented the issue of whether a state may prohibit the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment. In Cruzan, the plaintiffs' daughter, Nancy Beth Cruzan, was severely injured in a car accident.(24) After remaining in a coma for three weeks, she slipped into a persistent vegetative state, "a condition in which a person exhibits motor reflexes but evinces no indications of significant cognitive function. …

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