Physician-Assisted Suicide as a Constitutional Right
The question of whether there is a constitutional right to suicide was directly before the U.S. Supreme Court in two cases decided in 1997. These were brought by patients and physicians contesting state laws in Washington state [ Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702 (1997) .] and in New York [ Vacco v. Quill, 521 U.S. 793, 117 S.Ct. 2293 (1997) .] that banned physician participation in assisted suicide. It is important legally that the cases were about the right of a physician to participate in assisted suicide, not about the general right of assisted suicide. Although it is clear from the Court’s ruling that a state could ban assisted suicide in general, the court did not need to reach this issue because the states have very broad authority under the police powers to regulate medical practice. There are many things that the state can prevent physicians from doing as a condition of licensure that it might not be able to do as a general rule for all citizens.
The Court found that there was no constitutional right to have a physician assist in a suicide, so that the states were free to prohibit physicians from participating in suicides. The Court found that converse was also true: there was nothing to prevent the states from allowing both assisted suicide and physician participation in assisted suicide, so long as Congress does not preempt their authority by passing a law banning physician- assisted suicide nationally.