Washington v. Glucksberg

United States Supreme Court

June 26, 1997

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. Stevens, J., Souter, J., Ginsburg, J., and Breyer, J., filed opinions concurring in the judgment.

Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented in this case is whether Washington’s prohibition against "caus[ing]" or "aid[ing]" a suicide offends the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. We hold that it does not.

It has always been a crime to assist a suicide in the State of Washington. In 1854, Washington’s first Territorial Legislature outlawed "assisting another in the commission of self murder." Today, Washington law provides: "A person is guilty of promoting a suicide attempt when he knowingly causes or aids another person to attempt suicide." Wash. Rev. Code 9A.36.060(1) (1994). "Promoting a suicide attempt" is a felony, punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment and up to a $10,000 fine. §§9A.36.060(2) and 9A.20.021(1)(c). At the same time, Washington’s Natural Death Act, enacted in 1979, states that the "withholding or withdrawal of life sustaining treatment" at a patient’s direction "shall not, for any purpose, constitute a suicide." Wash. Rev. Code §70.122.070(1).

Petitioners in this case are the State of Washington and its Attorney General. Respondents Harold Glucksberg, M. D., Abigail Halperin, M. D., Thomas A. Preston, M. D., and Peter Shalit, M. D., are physicians who practice in Washington. These doctors occasionally treat terminally ill, suffering patients, and declare that they would assist these patients in ending their lives if not for Washington’s assisted suicide ban. In January 1994, respondents, along with three gravely ill, pseudonymous plaintiffs who have since died and Compassion in Dying, a nonprofit organization that counsels people considering physician assisted suicide, sued in the United States District Court, seeking a declaration that Wash Rev. Code 9A.36.060(1) (1994) is, on its face, unconstitutional. Compassion in Dying v. Washington, 850 F. Supp. 1454, 1459 (WD Wash. 1994).

The plaintiffs asserted "the existence of a liberty interest protected by the Fourteenth Amendment which extends to a personal choice by a mentally competent, terminally ill adult to commit physician assisted suicide." Id., at 1459. Relying primarily on Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992), and Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Dept. of Health, 497 U.S. 261 (1990), the District Court agreed, 850 F. Supp., at 1459-1462, and concluded that Washington’s assisted suicide ban is unconstitutional because it "places an undue burden on the exercise of [that] constitutionally protected liberty interest." Id., at 1465. The District Court also decided that the Washington statute violated the Equal Protection Clause’s requirement that "‘all persons similarly situated ... be treated alike.’" Id., at 1466 (quoting Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, Inc., 473 U.S. 432, 439 (1985)).

A panel of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, emphasizing that "[i]n the two hundred and five years of our existence no constitutional right to aid in killing oneself has ever been asserted and upheld by a court of final jurisdiction." Compassion in Dying v. Washington, 49 F. 3d 586, 591 (1995). The Ninth Circuit reheard the case en banc, reversed the panel’s decision, and affirmed the District Court. Compassion in Dying v. Washington, 79 F. 3d 790, 798 (1996). Like the District Court, the en banc Court of Appeals emphasized our Casey and Cruzan decisions. 79 F. 3d, at 813-816. The court also discussed what it described as "historical" and "current societal attitudes" toward suicide and assisted suicide, id., at 806-812, and concluded 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.’ " Id., at 816. After "[w]eighing and then balancing" this interest against Washington’s various interests, the court held that the State’s assisted suicide ban was unconstitutional "as applied to terminally ill competent adults who wish to hasten their deaths with medication prescribed by their physicians." Id., at 836, 837. The court did not reach the District Court’s equal protection holding. Id., at 838. We granted certiorari, 519 U. S. ___ (1996), and now reverse.

We begin, as we do in all due process cases, by examining our Nation’s history, legal traditions, and practices. See, e.g., Casey, 505 U. S., at 849-850; Cruzan, 497 U. S., at 269-279; Moore v. East Cleveland, 431 U.S. 494, 503 (1977) (plurality opinion) (noting importance of "careful ‘respect for the teachings of history’"). In almost every State--indeed, in almost every western democracy--it is a crime to assist a suicide. The States’ assisted suicide bans are not innovations. Rather, they are longstanding expressions of the States’ commitment to the protection and preservation of all human life. Cruzan, 497 U. S., at 280 ("[T]he States--indeed, all civilized nations--demonstrate their commitment to life by treating homicide as a serious crime. Moreover, the majority of States in this country have laws imposing criminal penalties on one who assists another to commit suicide"); see Stanford v. Kentucky, 492 U.S. 361, 373 (1989) ("[T]he primary and most reliable indication of [a national] consensus is ... the pattern of enacted laws"). Indeed, opposition to and condemnation of suicide--and, therefore, of assisting suicide--are consistent and enduring themes of our philosophical, legal, and cultural heritages. See generally, Marzen, O’Dowd, Crone & Balch, Suicide: A Constitutional Right?, 24 Duquesne L. Rev. 1, 17-56 (1985) (hereinafter Marzen); New York State Task Force on Life and the Law, When Death is Sought: Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia in the Medical Context 77-82 (May 1994) (hereinafter New York Task Force).

More specifically, for over 700 years, the Anglo American common law tradition has punished or otherwise disapproved of both suicide and assisting suicide. Cruzan, 497 U. S., at 294-295 (Scalia, J., concurring). In the 13th century, Henry de Bracton, one of the first legal treatise writers, observed that "[j]ust as a man may commit felony by slaying another so may he do so by slaying himself." 2 Bracton on Laws and Customs of England 423 (f. 150) (G. Woodbine ed., S. Thorne transl., 1968). The real and personal property of one who killed himself to avoid conviction and punishment for a crime were forfeit to the king; however, thought Bracton, "if a man slays himself in weariness of life or because he is unwilling to endure further bodily pain ... [only] his movable goods [were] confiscated." Id., at 423-424 (f. 150). Thus, "[t]he principle that suicide of a sane person, for whatever reason, was a punishable felony was ... introduced into English common law." Centuries later, Sir William Blackstone, whose Commentaries on the Laws of England not only provided a definitive summary of the common law but was also a primary legal authority for 18th and 19th century American lawyers, referred to suicide as "self murder" and "the pretended heroism, but real cowardice, of the Stoic philosophers, who destroyed themselves to avoid those ills which they had not the fortitude to endure ...." 4 W. Blackstone, Commentaries *189. Blackstone emphasized that "the law has ... ranked [suicide] among the highest crimes," ibid, although, anticipating later developments, he conceded that the harsh and shameful punishments imposed for suicide "borde[r] a little upon severity." Id., at *190.

For the most part, the early American colonies adopted the common law approach. For example, the legislators of the Providence Plantations, which would later become Rhode Island, declared, in 1647, that "[s]elf murder is by all agreed to be the most unnatural, and it is by this present Assembly declared, to be that, wherein he that doth it, kills himself out of a premeditated hatred against his own life or other humor: ...his goods and chattels are the king’s custom, but not his debts nor lands; but in case he be an infant, a lunatic, mad or distracted man, he forfeits nothing." The Earliest Acts and Laws of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations 1647-1719, p. 19 (J. Cushing ed. 1977). Virginia also required ignominious burial for suicides, and their estates were forfeit to the crown. A. Scott, Criminal Law in Colonial Virginia 108, and n. 93, 198, and n. 15 (1930).

Over time, however, the American colonies abolished these harsh common law penalties. William Penn abandoned the criminal forfeiture sanction in Pennsylvania in 1701, and the other colonies (and later, the other States) eventually followed this example. Cruzan, 497 U. S., at 294 (Scalia, J., concurring). …

…[T]he movement away from the common law’s harsh sanctions did not represent an acceptance of suicide; rather, … this change reflected the growing consensus that it was unfair to punish the suicide’s family for his wrongdoing. Cruzan, supra, at 294 (Scalia, J., concurring). Nonetheless, although States moved away from Blackstone’s treatment of suicide, courts continued to condemn it as a grave public wrong. See, e.g., Bigelow v. Berkshire Life Ins. Co., 93 U.S. 284, 286 (1876) (suicide is "an act of criminal self destruction"); Von Holden v. Chapman, 87 App. Div. 2d 66, 70-71, 450 N. Y. S. 2d 623, 626-627 (1982); Blackwood v. Jones, 111 Fla. 528, 532, 149 So. 600, 601 (1933) ("No sophistry is tolerated ... which seek[s] to justify self destruction as commendable or even a matter of personal right").

That suicide remained a grievous, though nonfelonious, wrong is confirmed by the fact that colonial and early state legislatures and courts did not retreat from prohibiting assisting suicide. … And the prohibitions against assisting suicide never contained exceptions for those who were near death. Rather, "[t]he life of those to whom life ha[d] become a burden--of those who [were] hopelessly diseased or fatally wounded--nay, even the lives of criminals condemned to death, [were] under the protection of law, equally as the lives of those who [were] in the full tide of life’s enjoyment, and anxious to continue to live." …

The earliest American statute explicitly to outlaw assisting suicide was enacted in New York in 1828 … and many of the new States and Territories followed New York’s example. … In this century, the Model Penal Code also prohibited "aiding" suicide, prompting many States to enact or revise their assisted suicide bans. The Code’s drafters observed that "the interests in the sanctity of life that are represented by the criminal homicide laws are threatened by one who expresses a willingness to participate in taking the life of another, even though the act may be accomplished with the consent, or at the request, of the suicide victim." …

Though deeply rooted, the States’ assisted suicide bans have in recent years been reexamined and, generally, reaffirmed. Because of advances in medicine and technology, Americans today are increasingly likely to die in institutions, from chronic illnesses. President’s Comm’n for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research, Deciding to Forego Life Sustaining Treatment 16-18 (1983). Public concern and democratic action are therefore sharply focused on how best to protect dignity and independence at the end of life, with the result that there have been many significant changes in state laws and in the attitudes these laws reflect. Many States, for example, now permit "living wills," surrogate health care decisionmaking, and the withdrawal or refusal of life sustaining medical treatment. See Vacco v. Quill, post, at 9-11; 79 F. 3d, at 818-820; People v. Kevorkian, 447Mich. 436, 478-480, and nn. 53-56, 527 N. W. 2d 714, 731-732, and nn. 53-56 (1994). At the same time, however, voters and legislators continue for the most part to reaffirm their States’ prohibitions on assisting suicide.

The Washington statute at issue in this case, Wash. Rev. Code §9A.36.060 (1994), was enacted in 1975 as part of a revision of that State’s criminal code. Four years later, Washington passed its Natural Death Act, which specifically stated that the "withholding or withdrawal of life sustaining treatment ... shall not, for any purpose, constitute a suicide" and that "[n]othing in this chapter shall be construed to condone, authorize, or approve mercy killing ...." Natural Death Act, 1979 Wash. Laws, ch. 112, §§8(1), p. 11 (codified at Wash. Rev. Code §§70.122.070(1), 70.122.100 (1994)). In 1991, Washington voters rejected a ballot initiative which, had it passed, would have permitted a form of physician assisted suicide. Washington then added a provision to the Natural Death Act expressly excluding physician assisted suicide. 1992 Wash. Laws, ch. 98, §10; Wash. Rev. Code §70.122.100 (1994).

California voters rejected an assisted suicide initiative similar to Washington’s in 1993. On the other hand, in 1994, voters in Oregon enacted, also through ballot initiative, that State’s "Death With Dignity Act," which legalized physician assisted suicide for competent, terminally ill adults. Since the Oregon vote, many proposals to legalize assisted suicide have been and continue to be introduced in the States’ legislatures, but none has been enacted. And just last year, Iowa and Rhode Island joined the overwhelming majority of States explicitly prohibiting assisted suicide. See Iowa Code Ann. §§707A.2, 707A.3 (Supp. 1997); R. I. Gen. Laws §§ 11-60-1, 11-60-3 (Supp. 1996). Also, on April 30, 1997, President Clinton signed the Federal Assisted Suicide Funding Restriction Act of 1997, which prohibits the use of federal funds in support of physician assisted suicide. Pub. L. 105-12, 111 Stat. 23 (codified at 42 U.S.C. § 14401 et seq).

Thus, the States are currently engaged in serious, thoughtful examinations of physician assisted suicide and other similar issues. For example, New York State’s Task Force on Life and the Law--an ongoing, blue ribbon commission composed of doctors, ethicists, lawyers, religious leaders, and interested laymen--was convened in 1984 and commissioned with "a broad mandate to recommend public policy on issues raised by medical advances." New York Task Force vii. Over the past decade, the Task Force has recommended laws relating to end of life decisions, surrogate pregnancy, and organ donation. Id., at 118-119. After studying physician assisted suicide, however, the Task Force unanimously concluded that "[l]egalizing assisted suicide and euthanasia would pose profound risks to many individuals who are ill and vulnerable.... [T]he potential dangers of this dramatic change in public policy would outweigh any benefit that might be achieved." Id., at 120.

Attitudes toward suicide itself have changed since Bracton, but our laws have consistently condemned, and continue to prohibit, assisting suicide. Despite changes in medical technology and notwithstanding an increased emphasis on the importance of end of life decision making, we have not retreated from this prohibition. Against this backdrop of history, tradition, and practice, we now turn to respondents’ constitutional claim.


The Due Process Clause guarantees more than fair process, and the "liberty" it protects includes more than the absence of physical restraint. Collins v. Harker Heights, 503 U.S. 115, 125 (1992) (Due Process Clause "protects individual liberty against ‘certain government actions regardless of the fairness of the procedures used to implement them’ ") (quoting Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 331 (1986)). The Clause also provides heightened protection against government interference with certain fundamental rights and liberty interests. Reno v. Flores, 507 U.S. 292, 301-302 (1993); Casey, 505 U. S., at 851. In a long line of cases, we have held that, in addition to the specific freedoms protected by the Bill of Rights, the "liberty" specially protected by the Due Process Clause includes the rights to marry, Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967); to have children, Skinner v. Oklahoma ex rel. Williamson, 316 U.S. 535 (1942); to direct the education and upbringing of one’s children, Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923); Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925); to marital privacy, Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965); to use contraception, ibid; Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438 (1972); to bodily integrity, Rochin v. California, 342 U.S. 165 (1952), and to abortion, Casey, supra. We have also assumed, and strongly suggested, that the Due Process Clause protects the traditional right to refuse unwanted lifesaving medical treatment. Cruzan, 497 U. S., at 278-279.

But we "ha[ve] always been reluctant to expand the concept of substantive due process because guideposts for responsible decisionmaking in this unchartered area are scarce and open ended." Collins, 503 U. S., at 125. By extending constitutional protection to an asserted right or liberty interest, we, to a great extent, place the matter outside the arena of public debate and legislative action. We must therefore "exercise the utmost care whenever we are asked to break new ground in this field," ibid, lest the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause be subtly transformed into the policy preferences of the members of this Court, Moore, 431 U. S., at 502 (plurality opinion).

Our established method of substantive due process analysis has two primary features: First, we have regularly observed that the Due Process Clause specially protects those fundamental rights and liberties which are, objectively, "deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition," id., at 503 (plurality opinion); Snyder v. Massachusetts, 291 U.S. 97, 105 (1934) ("so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental"), and "implicit in the concept of ordered liberty," such that "neither liberty nor justice would exist if they were sacrificed," Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319, 325, 326 (1937). Second, we have required in substantive due process cases a "careful description" of the asserted fundamental liberty interest. Flores, supra, at 302; Collins, supra, at 125; Cruzan, supra, at 277-278. Our Nation’s history, legal traditions, and practices thus provide the crucial "guideposts for responsible decisionmaking," Collins, supra, at 125, that direct and restrain our exposition of the Due Process Clause. As we stated recently in Flores, the Fourteenth Amendment "forbids the government to infringe ... ‘fundamental’ liberty interests at all, no matter what process is provided, unless the infringement is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest." 507 U. S., at 302. …

… The Washington statute at issue in this case prohibits "aid[ing] another person to attempt suicide," Wash. Rev. Code §9A.36.060(1) (1994), and, thus, the question before us is whether the "liberty" specially protected by the Due Process Clause includes a right to commit suicide which itself includes a right to assistance in doing so.

…[W]e are confronted with a consistent and almost universal tradition that has long rejected the asserted right, and continues explicitly to reject it today, even for terminally ill, mentally competent adults. To hold for respondents, we would have to reverse centuries of legal doctrine and practice, and strike down the considered policy choice of almost every State. …

Respondents contend, however, that the liberty interest they assert is consistent with this Court’s substantive due process line of cases, if not with this Nation’s history and practice. Pointing to Casey and Cruzan, respondents read our jurisprudence in this area as reflecting a general tradition of "self sovereignty," Brief of Respondents 12, and as teaching that the "liberty" protected by the Due Process Clause includes "basic and intimate exercises of personal autonomy," id., at 10; see Casey, 505 U. S., at 847 ("It is a promise of the Constitution that there is a realm of personal liberty which the government may not enter"). According to respondents, our liberty jurisprudence, and the broad, individualistic principles it reflects, protects the "liberty of competent, terminally ill adults to make end of life decisions free of undue government interference." Brief for Respondents 10. The question presented in this case, however, is whether the protections of the Due Process Clause include a right to commit suicide with another’s assistance. …

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. The Constitution also requires, however, that Washington’s assisted suicide ban be rationally related to legitimate government interests. See Heller v. Doe, 509 U.S. 312, 319-320 (1993); Flores, 507 U. S., at 305. This requirement is unquestionably met here. As the court below recognized, 79 F. 3d, at 816-817, Washington’s assisted suicide ban implicates a number of state interests. See 49 F. 3d, at 592-593; Brief for State of California et al. as Amici Curiae 26-29; Brief for United States as Amicus Curiae 16-27.

First, Washington has an "unqualified interest in the preservation of human life." Cruzan, 497 U. S., at 282. The State’s prohibition on assisted suicide, like all homicide laws, both reflects and advances its commitment to this interest. …

Respondents admit that "[t]he State has a real interest in preserving the lives of those who can still contribute to society and enjoy life." …

Relatedly, all admit that suicide is a serious public health problem, especially among persons in otherwise vulnerable groups. …

Those who attempt suicide--terminally ill or not--often suffer from depression or other mental disorders. … Research indicates, however, that many people who request physician assisted suicide withdraw that request if their depression and pain are treated. …[B]ecause depression is difficult to diagnose, physicians and medical professionals often fail to respond adequately to seriously ill patients’ needs. … Thus, legal physician assisted suicide could make it more difficult for the State to protect depressed or mentally ill persons, or those who are suffering from untreated pain, from suicidal impulses.

The State also has an interest in protecting the integrity and ethics of the medical profession. …[T]he American Medical Association, like many other medical and physicians’ groups, has concluded that "[p]hysician assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer." American Medical Association, Code of Ethics §2.211 (1994); see Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs, Decisions Near the End of Life, 267 JAMA 2229, 2233 (1992). …

Next, the State has an interest in protecting vulnerable groups--including the poor, the elderly, and disabled persons--from abuse, neglect, and mistakes. … If physician assisted suicide were permitted, many might resort to it to spare their families the substantial financial burden of end of life health care costs.

The State’s interest here goes beyond protecting the vulnerable from coercion; it extends to protecting disabled and terminally ill people from prejudice, negative and inaccurate stereotypes, and "societal indifference." 49 F. 3d, at 592. The State’s assisted suicide ban reflects and reinforces its policy that the lives of terminally ill, disabled, and elderly people must be no less valued than the lives of the young and healthy, and that a seriously disabled person’s suicidal impulses should be interpreted and treated the same way as anyone else’s. …

Finally, the State may fear that permitting assisted suicide will start it down the path to voluntary and perhaps even involuntary euthanasia. …[W]hat is couched as a limited right to "physician assisted suicide" is likely, in effect, a much broader license, which could prove extremely difficult to police and contain. Washington’s ban on assisting suicide prevents such erosion.

This concern is further supported by evidence about the practice of euthanasia in the Netherlands. The Dutch government’s own study revealed that in 1990, there were 2,300 cases of voluntary euthanasia (defined as "the deliberate termination of another’s life at his request"), 400 cases of assisted suicide, and more than 1,000 cases of euthanasia without an explicit request. In addition to these latter 1,000 cases, the study found an additional 4,941 cases where physicians administered lethal morphine overdoses without the patients’ explicit consent. Physician Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia in the Netherlands: A Report of Chairman Charles T. Canady, at 12-13 (citing Dutch study). This study suggests that, despite the existence of various reporting procedures, euthanasia in the Netherlands has not been limited to competent, terminally ill adults who are enduring physical suffering, and that regulation of the practice may not have prevented abuses in cases involving vulnerable persons, including severely disabled neonates and elderly persons suffering from dementia. …

We need not weigh exactingly the relative strengths of these various interests. They are unquestionably important and legitimate, and Washington’s ban on assisted suicide is at least reasonably related to their promotion and protection. We therefore hold that Wash. Rev. Code §9A.36.060(1) (1994) does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment, either on its face or "as applied to competent, terminally ill adults who wish to hasten their deaths by obtaining medication prescribed by their doctors." 79 F. 3d, at 838.

* * *

Throughout the Nation, Americans are engaged in an earnest and profound debate about the morality, legality, and practicality of physician assisted suicide. Our holding permits this debate to continue, as it should in a democratic society. The decision of the en banc Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


Justice O’Connor, concurring. …


Justice Stevens, concurring in the judgments.

The Court ends its opinion with the important observation that our holding today is fully consistent with a continuation of the vigorous debate about the "morality, legality, and practicality of physician assisted suicide" in a democratic society. Ante, at 32. I write separately to make it clear that there is also room for further debate about the limits that the Constitution places on the power of the States to punish the practice.

The morality, legality, and practicality of capital punishment have been the subject of debate for many years. In 1976, this Court upheld the constitutionality of the practice in cases coming to us from Georgia, Florida , and Texas. In those cases we concluded that a State does have the power to place a lesser value on some lives than on others; there is no absolute requirement that a State treat all human life as having an equal right to preservation. Because the state legislatures had sufficiently narrowed the category of lives that the State could terminate, and had enacted special procedures to ensure that the defendant belonged in that limited category, we concluded that the statutes were not unconstitutional on their face. In later cases coming to us from each of those States, however, we found that some applications of the statutes were unconstitutional.

Today, the Court decides that Washington’s statute prohibiting assisted suicide is not invalid "on its face," that is to say, in all or most cases in which it might be applied. That holding, however, does not foreclose the possibility that some applications of the statute might well be invalid. …

…[J]ust as our conclusion that capital punishment is not always unconstitutional did not preclude later decisions holding that it is sometimes impermissibly cruel, so is it equally clear that a decision upholding a general statutory prohibition of assisted suicide does not mean that every possible application of the statute would be valid. A State, like Washington, that has authorized the death penalty and thereby has concluded that the sanctity of human life does not require that it always be preserved, must acknowledge that there are situations in which an interest in hastening death is legitimate. Indeed, not only is that interest sometimes legitimate, I am also convinced that there are times when it is entitled to constitutional protection. …

There remains room for vigorous debate about the outcome of particular cases that are not necessarily resolved by the opinions announced today. How such cases may be decided will depend on their specific facts. In my judgment, however, it is clear that the so called "unqualified interest in the preservation of human life," … is not itself sufficient to outweigh the interest in liberty that may justify the only possible means of preserving a dying patient’s dignity and alleviating her intolerable suffering.

Justice Souter, concurring in the judgment.

… Legislatures [in contrast to courts] have superior opportunities to obtain the facts necessary for a judgment about the present controversy. Not only do they have more flexible mechanisms for fact finding than the Judiciary, but their mechanisms include the power to experiment, moving forward and pulling back as facts emerge within their own jurisdictions. There is, indeed, good reason to suppose that in the absence of a judgment for respondents here, just such experimentation will be attempted in some of the States. See, e.g., Ore. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§127.800 et seq. (Supp. 1996); App. to Brief for State Legislators as Amici Curiae 1a (listing proposed statutes).

…Sometimes a court may be bound to act regardless of the institutional preferability of the political branches as forums for addressing constitutional claims. See, e.g., Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 (1954). Now, it is enough to say that our examination of legislative reasonableness should consider the fact that the Legislature of the State of Washington is no more obviously at fault than this Court is in being uncertain about what would happen if respondents prevailed today. We therefore have a clear question about which institution, a legislature or a court, is relatively more competent to deal with an emerging issue as to which facts currently unknown could be dispositive. The answer has to be, for the reasons already stated, that the legislative process is to be preferred. There is a closely related further reason as well.

One must bear in mind that the nature of the right claimed, if recognized as one constitutionally required, would differ in no essential way from other constitutional rights guaranteed by enumeration or derived from some more definite textual source than "due process." An unenumerated right should not therefore be recognized, with the effect of displacing the legislative ordering of things, without the assurance that its recognition would prove as durable as the recognition of those other rights differently derived. To recognize a right of lesser promise would simply create a constitutional regime too uncertain to bring with it the expectation of finality that is one of this Court’s central obligations in making constitutional decisions. See Casey, 505 U. S., at 864-869.

Legislatures, however, are not so constrained. The experimentation that should be out of the question in constitutional adjudication displacing legislative judgments is entirely proper, as well as highly desirable, when the legislative power addresses an emerging issue like assisted suicide. The Court should accordingly stay its hand to allow reasonable legislative consideration. While I do not decide for all time that respondents’ claim should not be recognized, I acknowledge the legislative institutional competence as the better one to deal with that claim at this time


Justice Ginsburg, concurring in the judgments. …

Justice Breyer, concurring in the judgments.

I believe that Justice O’Connor’s views, which I share, have greater legal significance than the Court’s opinion suggests. I join her separate opinion, except insofar as it joins the majority. And I concur in the judgments. I shall briefly explain how I differ from the Court.

I agree with the Court in Vacco v. Quill, ante, that the articulated state interests justify the distinction drawn between physician assisted suicide and withdrawal of life support. I also agree with the Court that the critical question in both of the cases before us is whether "the ‘liberty’ specially protected by the Due Process Clause includes a right of the sort that the respondents assert. Washington v. Glucksberg, ante, at 19. I do not agree, however, with the Court’s formulation of that claimed "liberty" interest. The Court describes it as a "right to commit suicide with another’s assistance." Ante, at 20. But I would not reject the respondents’ claim without considering a different formulation, for which our legal tradition may provide greater support. That formulation would use words roughly like a "right to die with dignity." But irrespective of the exact words used, at its core would lie personal control over the manner of death, professional medical assistance, and the avoidance of unnecessary and severe physical suffering--combined.

… Justice Harlan’s dissenting opinion in Poe v. Ullman, 367 U.S. 497 (1961), offers some support for such a claim. In that opinion, Justice Harlan referred to the "liberty" that the Fourteenth Amendment protects as including "a freedom from all substantial arbitrary impositions and purposeless restraints" and also as recognizing that "certain interests require particularly careful scrutiny of the state needs asserted to justify their abridgment." Id., at 543. The "certain interests" to which Justice Harlan referred may well be similar (perhaps identical) to the rights, liberties, or interests that the Court today, as in the past, regards as "fundamental." Ante, at 15; see also Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992); Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438 (1972); Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965); Rochin v. California, 342 U.S. 165 (1952); Skinner v. Oklahoma ex rel. Williamson, 316 U.S. 535 (1942).

Justice Harlan concluded that marital privacy was such a "special interest." He found in the Constitution a right of "privacy of the home"--with the home, the bedroom, and "intimate details of the marital relation" at its heart--by examining the protection that the law had earlier provided for related, but not identical, interests described by such words as "privacy," "home," and "family." 367 U. S., at 548, 552; cf. Casey, supra, at 851. The respondents here essentially ask us to do the same. They argue that one can find a "right to die with dignity" by examining the protection the law has provided for related, but not identical, interests relating to personal dignity, medical treatment, and freedom from state inflicted pain. See Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651 (1977); Cruzan v. Director, Mo. Dept. of Health, 497 U.S. 261 (1990); Casey, supra.

I do not believe, however, that this Court need or now should decide whether or a not such a right is "fundamental." That is because, in my view, the avoidance of severe physical pain (connected with death) would have to comprise an essential part of any successful claim and because, as Justice O’Connor points out, the laws before us do not force a dying person to undergo that kind of pain. Ante, at 2 (O’Connor, J., concurring). Rather, the laws of New York and of Washington do not prohibit doctors from providing patients with drugs sufficient to control pain despite the risk that those drugs themselves will kill. Cf. New York State Task Force on Life and the Law, When Death Is Sought: Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia in the Medical Context 163, n. 29 (May 1994). And under these circumstances the laws of New York and Washington would overcome any remaining significant interests and would be justified, regardless.

Medical technology, we are repeatedly told, makes the administration of pain relieving drugs sufficient, except for a very few individuals for whom the ineffectiveness of pain control medicines can mean, not pain, but the need for sedation which can end in a coma. Brief for National Hospice Organization 8; Brief for the American Medical Association (AMA) et al. as Amici Curiae 6; see also Byock, Consciously Walking the Fine Line: Thoughts on a Hospice Response to Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, 9 J. Palliative Care 25, 26 (1993); New York State Task Force, at 44, and n. 37. We are also told that there are many instances in which patients do not receive the palliative care that, in principle, is available, id., at 43-47; Brief for AMA as Amici Curiae 6; Brief for Choice in Dying, Inc., as Amici Curiae 20, but that is so for institutional reasons or inadequacies or obstacles, which would seem possible to overcome, and which do not include a prohibitive set of laws. Ante, at 2 (O’Connor, J., concurring); see also 2 House of Lords, Session 1993-1994 Report of Select Committee on Medical Ethics 113 (1994) (indicating that the number of palliative care centers in the United Kingdom, where physician assisted suicide is illegal, significantly exceeds that in the Netherlands, where such practices are legal).

This legal circumstance means that the state laws before us do not infringe directly upon the (assumed) central interest (what I have called the core of the interest in dying with dignity) as, by way of contrast, the state anticontraceptive laws at issue in Poe did interfere with the central interest there at stake--by bringing the State’s police powers to bear upon the marital bedroom.

Were the legal circumstances different--for example, were state law to prevent the provision of palliative care, including the administration of drugs as needed to avoid pain at the end of life--then the law’s impact upon serious and otherwise unavoidable physical pain (accompanying death) would be more directly at issue. And as Justice O’Connor suggests, the Court might have to revisit its conclusions in these cases.