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Washington v. Glucksberg & Vacco v. Quill

Compassion in Dying (the predecessor of Compassion & Choices) sponsored this case along with four physicians and three terminally ill patients. The litigants sought recognition for terminally ill, mentally competent adults to opt for 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 distinguish providing life-ending medication for terminally ill patients from actions covered by the state’s law against assisting a suicide. The state court found that providing those medications was in fact not exempt, leading to a U.S. Supreme Court challenge.

In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to recognize the right to aid in dying. But 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 advanced 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.”

Glucksberg Opinion: Chief Justice Rhenquist

Vacco Opinion: Chief Justice Rhenquist

Justice Stevens’ Concurring Opinion

Justice O’Connor’s Concurring Opinion

Justice Breyers’s Concurring Opinion

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 here.)


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