It’s Time to Reinvigorate the Constitutional Claim for Physician Assistance in Dying

by  Norman L. Cantor

Since 1997, when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected federal constitutional challenges to New York and Washington prohibitions of assistance to suicide, the notion that a dying patient might have a constitutional right to obtain a lethal prescription has gotten short shrift.  Even when the dying patient’s claim for physician assistance in dying (PAD) has relied on state constitutional provisions, no state supreme court has ruled that state liberty or equal protection guarantees so benefit a competent, terminally ill medical patient.  See T.M. Pope, Legal History of Medical Aid in Dying: Physician Assisted Death in U.S. Courts and Legislatures,   N. Mex. L. Rev.  (2018). At least 5 state highest courts have rejected such claims.  Yet developments and insights emerging over the last 21 years in death and dying jurisprudence provide reason to reinvigorate constitutional challenges to state prohibitions on a physician’s providing a lethal substance to a competent, fatally stricken medical patient.

The first Achilles heel in current legal doctrine relates to the “liberty” concept invoked by fatally stricken claimants.   When Chief Justice William Rehnquist rejected the patients’ liberty claim in Washington v. Glucksberg, he labeled it as seeking a “right to suicide.”  That over-simplistic formulation of the constitutional claim presaged its failure.  Of course the guides to fundamental liberty, i.e., the traditions and collective conscience of the people, do not encompass “suicide.”  Suicide, broadly viewed as a choice to “prematurely cut short a viable life, usually for reasons of a transient nature and often involving depression,” has always been disdained and discouraged.  Pope, supra, at 29.  Law has customarily allowed physical intervention to prevent suicide, and has criminally punished assistance to suicide.

Rehnquist, though, was unfairly characterizing the liberty claim of dying patients.  Those dying patients in Glucksberg were not advancing a broad prerogative to terminate a life deemed unbearably unhappy.  Rather, they were asserting a fatally stricken person’s interest in medical management of the dying process and in control of the timing of an unavoidable, lurking death.  Only in the 20th century, with development of modern medical tools, did this issue really emerge.  Only then did a fatally stricken patient incur risk of a protracted dying process with accompanying suffering or degradation.  The 21st century is witnessing an expanded incidence of medically mediated death, a phenomenon warranting renewed focus on end-of-life self-determination.

The 21st century is also witnessing development in another measure of fundamental liberty – the collective conscience of the people.  Polls in 2017 show that 67% of Americans now support the concept of physician-assisted death.  Public sentiment may not be a determinative factor, but it is relevant in shaping the meaning of fundamental liberty.  Also relevant are developments in legalization of PAD as in California, Colorado, New Hampshire, Montana, and the District of Columbia. In short, a basis exists for refining and resubmitting the constitutional claim that self-determination in management of a looming, unavoidable dying process should be deemed a fundamental aspect of liberty.  Continue reading