The United States Supreme Court should be lauded for agreeing to hear the appeals of two lower court decisions guaranteeing assisted suicide as a constitutional right. The timely decision to take up the cases brings to the forefront the debate over the right of patients to make decisions about their own death. The court has the opportunity, through affirming the right to assisted suicide, to grant Americans greater autonomy and personal freedom and to protect them from current medical practices which often place the preservation of patients’ lives over a regard for the patients’ wishes.
Despite the recent prominence of the assisted suicide debate, the Supreme Court hasn’t directly engaged the issue since 1990. In that case, Cruzan vs. The Missouri Department of Health, the court affirmed the right of the patient to refuse life-sustaining treatment but didn’t touch on doctors participating in a patient’s suicide.
Since that ruling there has been tangible evidence of widespread support for assisted suicide. Dr. Jack Kevorkian has been acquitted by three different juries of charges stemming from enabling the terminally ill to end their own lives. In 1994, Oregon voters approved, by a narrow margin, a referendum legalizing doctor-assisted suicide. And a recent poll of San Francisco AIDS specialists found that 53 percent of those surveyed had assisted in the suicide of one of their patients by prescribing a narcotics overdose.
The two cases the court has agreed to hear, Washington vs. Glucksberg and Quill vs. Vacco, both call into question outdated 19th-century laws prohibiting assisted suicide. In these cases the court has the opportunity to expand and redefine the rights of the dying.
In Quill v. Vacco, three terminally ill patients and their physicians brought action against the New York prohibition on assisted suicide. The patients described their terrible suffering and frustration that their physicians were not allowed to prescribe medication that would result in their deaths. In their ruling, the 2nd Circuit Court cited the 14th Amendment guaranteeing equal protection, claiming that the prescription of lethal medication was not significantly different than refusal of treatment, which is preserved under the law.
Washington vs. Glucksberg also found no significant difference between the a physician “pulling the plug” and prescribing drugs that would allow patients to end their lives. The judges in the 9th Circuit Court found that patients were denied due process by the law that disallowed physicians from helping them to die.
By upholding these decisions, the Supreme Court can set a firm legal precedent and allow physicians serve this last need of a dying patient. It is a step in the right direction just to hear these cases, but a reversal would be a major setback. Our highest court should affirm the right of every terminally ill patient to decide when to die or receive the protection of the right to remain on life support if they so desire.