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Is There a Constitutional Right to Physician-assisted Suicide?

When a loved one is struck with a painful, terminal, debilitating illness, her family may believe that the kindest and best medical treatment would be to end the patient's life. However, the U.S. Constitution does not provide any right to physician assisted suicide. The laws regarding whether doctors can administer treatment to assist with ending life vary from state to state.

The Right to Refuse Medical Treatment

The federal constitution guarantees many of the basic rights of U.S. citizens, including free speech, religion, and due process. Due process is a lesser known, but extremely important, right. Under the due process clause, a U.S. citizen cannot lose his life, liberty, or property without notice and the opportunity to be heard. In a famous decision, Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health, the Supreme Court established that the due process clause protects a patient's liberty to refuse medical treatment, even if that refusal would ultimately lead to the patient's death.

Is there a Right to Physician Assisted Suicide?

However, this does not mean that individuals have a constitutional right to physician assisted suicide. In 1997, the Supreme Court issued two decisions on the same day on the right to die: Washington v. Glucksberg, and Vacco v. Quill. Those two cases decided that the government's interest in preserving life and preventing intentional killing outweighed the patient's interest in the liberty to choose to die. Furthermore, refusing life-saving medical treatment is different than asking a physician to end a patient's life, and the states are free to make laws treating these two acts differently.

States may also enact laws that protect a patient's right to die, and a few states have done so. In those states, doctors may provide lethal doses of certain drugs at the request of their patients, although patients control the act of administering those doses. Several more states continue to debate whether to pass similar measures.

For more information about constitutional rights, see Findlaw's section on civil rights. Check out FindLaw's Living Wills section to learn how to make a plan should your family face difficult medical decisions.

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