The Debate Surrounding the Right to Die

In 2014 Brittany Maynard became the face of the nation’s right-to-die debate. Maynard, 29, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and given six months to live. After assessing her options, Maynard and her family reluctantly decided to move from the San Francisco Bay Area to Oregon, one of five states that authorized physician-assisted suicide at the time. Maynard died on November 1, 2014 after taking a lethal dose of drugs prescribed by her physician. An ardent advocate for physician-assisted suicides, Maynard revitalized the discussion across the country and made the topic relevant to a younger generation.

The topic sparks rigorous debate and there are complex arguments on both sides of the issue. At play are legal, ethical, and moral dilemmas. Proponents of physician-assisted suicide say that it gives those suffering from terminal illnesses a right to die with dignity. They argue that in the face of a terminal illness where the prospect of unbearable pain, diminished quality of life, inevitable suffering, and death are all imminent realities, one should have the right to decide how and when to die.  Opponents say that it is dangerous and unethical. They argue that when doctor-induced death becomes an acceptable remedy for suffering, “logical extensions grease the slippery slope.” For example, one doctor who opposes the practice cited statistics from Holland, where the practice is legal, that claim more than forty people sought and received doctor-assisted death for depression and other mental illnesses.

In two 1997 cases, Vacco v. Quill and Washington v. Glucksberg, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that physician-assisted suicide is not a fundamental liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Because it was not determined to be a fundamental liberty interest, the Court gave a great deal of deference to the laws in place at the time of the rulings. In particular, Washington v. Glucksberg dealt with a Washington statute that made it a felony for a person to assist in the death of another. The state of Washington argued that it had a legitimate interest in preserving lives, preventing suicides, avoiding the involvement of third parties and the use of unfair or arbitrary influence, protecting the integrity of the medical community, and avoiding future movement toward euthanasia and other abuses. The Court held that the law was rationally related to those legitimate interests. However, it left the door open for states to permit physician-assisted suicides by declining to ban the practice.

Currently California, Oregon, Washington, and Vermont have enacted “Death with Dignity” statutes, and Montana has made the practice legal through case law. Twenty more states are considering “Death with Dignity” legislation this season, and twenty-five states have no legislative activity on the topic this year. Clearly there is still a lot to be decided in this area, and it is likely to be an active area of law for many years to come.