The Rehnquist Court (1986–2005)


Did the Rehnquist Court find there to be a constitutional right to die?

No, the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court declined to recognize that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause and its protection of life, liberty, and property included a right to die. In Washington v. Glucksberg (1997), the Court determined that terminally ill patients did not possess such a constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide. Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote that there was a “consistent and almost universal tradition” of criminalizing the assisting of suicide. “The States’ assisted-suicide bans are not innovations,” he wrote. “Rather, they are longstanding expressions of the States’ commitment to the protection and preservation of human life.”

The Court had dealt with a related issue in Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health (1990). In that decision, the Court determined that a state could refuse to withdraw life support from a person in a vegetative state absent clear and convincing evidence that the patient would have wanted such a course of action. However, the Court said there was a clear difference between the two cases. Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote that there was a large distinction between assisted suicide and the refusal of unwanted medical treatment. He explained: “In Cruzan itself, … we certainly gave no indication that the right to refuse unwanted medical treatment could be somehow transmuted into a right to assistance in committing suicide.”


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