History of Suicide Law
Assisted suicide was first before the U.S. Supreme Court in the Cruzan case, where one of the points urged on the court was that it should recognize a right to suicide because it was part of the Anglo-American legal tradition. In rejecting this claim, the Court outlined the history of suicide and assisted suicide:
At common law in England, a suicide—defined as one who ‘deliberately puts an end to his own existence, or commits any unlawful malicious act, the consequence of which is his own death,’ 4 W. Blackstone, Commentaries *189—was criminally liable. Ibid. Although the States abolished the penalties imposed by the common law (i.e., forfeiture and ignominious burial), they did so to spare the innocent family and not to legitimize the act. Case law at the time of the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment generally held that assisting suicide was a criminal offense. See Marzen, O’Dowd, Crone, & Balch, Suicide: A Constitutional Right?, 24 Duquesne L. Rev. 1, 76 (1985) (‘In short, twenty-one of the thirty-seven states, and eighteen of the thirty ratifying states prohibited assisting suicide. Only eight of the states, and seven of the ratifying states, definitely did not’); see also 1 F. Wharton, Criminal Law @ 122 (6th rev. ed. 1868). The System of Penal Law presented to the House of Representatives by Representative Livingston in 1828 would have criminalized assisted suicide. E. Livingston, A System of Penal Law, Penal Code 122 (1828). The Field Penal Code, adopted by the Dakota Territory in 1877, proscribed attempted suicide and assisted suicide. Marzen, O’Dowd, Crone, & Balch, supra, at 76–77. And most States that did not explicitly prohibit assisted suicide in 1868 recognized, when the issue arose in the 50 years following the Fourteenth Amendment’s ratification, that assisted and (in some cases) attempted suicide were unlawful. Id., at 77–100; id., at 148–242 (surveying development of States’ laws). Thus, ‘there is no significant support for the claim that a right to suicide is so rooted in our tradition that it may be deemed ‘fundamental’ or ‘implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.’’ Id., at 100 (quoting Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319, 325 (1937)). [Cruzan, 497 U.S. at 294.]