Compassion in Dying (the predecessor of Compassion & Choices) sponsored these cases that sought recognition for terminally ill, mentally competent adults to choose medical aid in dying under the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause.
The Glucksberg case began in Washington State. A declaratory judgment was sought to exempt providing life-ending medication for terminally ill patients from the state’s law against assisting a suicide. The court found that providing those medications was, in fact, not exempt, leading to a U.S. Supreme Court challenge.
Vacco, on the other hand, originated in New York, and challenged New York law that allowed terminally ill patients receiving life-sustaining treatment to withdraw or withhold that treatment, even when that decision would accelerate their death, but denied the rights of terminally ill, mentally competent patients who did not need life sustaining treatment that same choice.
In 1997, the US Supreme Court declined to recognize the right to aid-in-dying. However, the Court invited the individual states to address the issue. These cases are widely recognized as a catalyst for drawing attention to the care of the dying. The Court further recognized that dying patients have a federal constitutional right to obtain medication sufficient to relieve their pain, even if the time of death is hastened as a result.
The Court concluded by saying, “Americans are engaged in an earnest and profound debate about the morality, legality and practicality of physician-assisted suicide. Our holding permits this debate to continue, as it should in a democratic society.”
Also see Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health, the first case to affirm the rights of Americans to refuse unwanted medical treatment and appoint a healthcare proxy to speak on behalf of a patient who no longer could voice their wishes. (Chief Justice Rehnquist’s Opinion can be read here.)