Is There a Constitutional Right to Physician-Assisted Suicide?

When a loved one is struck with a painful, terminal, debilitating illness, their family may believe that the kindest and best medical treatment would be to end the patient's life. However, the United States Constitution does not provide any right to physician-assisted suicide and the topic remains quite controversial. The laws regarding whether doctors can administer treatment to assist with ending life, often referred to as "right to die" or "death with dignity" laws, vary from state to state.

So while there is no constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide, a growing list of states has enacted laws granting the right to die. This should not be confused with euthanasia, or mercy killing, in which another individual actively takes the patient's life. As its name implies, physician-assisted suicide legally requires the patient to take the drugs that ultimately end their life.

The Right to Refuse Medical Treatment

The U.S. Constitution guarantees many of the basic rights of citizens and legal residents, 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 their 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.

One of the best ways to clarify your wishes regarding end-of-life medical care is to spell it out in a living will or advance directive. These legally binding documents inform medical staff about whether you want to be kept alive (or resuscitated) in the event of a terminal illness, persistent vegetative state, or other conditions. An extra step you may take is to appoint a trusted individual to make these decisions on your behalf through a durable power of attorney for health care.

The Right to Die: A Brief Legal History

Physician-assisted suicide laws and court battles have been high-profile affairs steeped in politics, religion, and philosophical arguments. While the nation's highest court declined to rule that the right to die is protected under the Constitution, it stopped short of declaring the practice illegal (thus making it a state issue).

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, regardless of the patient's condition. Furthermore, the Court ruled that refusing life-saving medical treatment is different than asking a physician to end a patient's life. the rulings gave the green light for states to make laws treating these two acts differently.

State Death-With-Dignity Laws: Overview

States may also enact laws that protect a patient's right to die, and a growing list of 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. Most state right-to-die laws require the patient to inquire with their doctor several times before being prescribed lethal drugs and require patients to have six or fewer months left to live, among other regulations.

Below are a few examples of states with physician-assisted suicide laws on the books:

  • Oregon - Voters passed the Oregon Death with Dignity Act in 1994, which requires two oral and one written doctor request.
  • Montana - the Montana Supreme Court expanded the state's existing Rights of the Terminally Ill Act to include physician-assisted suicide in 2009, but Montana still lacks a regulatory framework for such acts.
  • Vermont - Lamakers in Vermont passed the Patient Choice and Control at End of Life Act in 2013, which is similar to right-to-die laws in other states.

Need Help With End-of-Life Matters? An Attorney Can Help

As the saying goes, the only sure things in life are death and taxes. If a loved one has suffered a debilitating, terminal illness with no chance for recovery, you may want to help them to explore ways in which they can end their life on their own terms. While the right to die is not the law of the land, there may be a few options available to accomplish one's end-of-life wishes. Get help with your end-of-life concerns by consulting with a health care attorney near you.

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