The State of Washington now permits certain medical patients to seek physician-assisted suicide. Under the law, terminally ill patients whom doctors have diagnosed as having six or fewer months to live can end their lives with a lethal dose of medication prescribed by a doctor.
The Washington law is very similar to an Oregon law, which has existed for ten years. Oregon, Washington and Montana are the only states that permit physician-assisted suicide.
No U.S. Constitutional Right to Physician-Assisted Suicide, But to Refuse Life-Sustaining Medical Treatment
While Oregon and Washington moved to permit physician-assisted suicide through legislation, in Montana, a court recently held that the right exists under the state constitution. By contrast, in the 1997 case Washington v Glucksberg, the Supreme Court held that the U.S. Constitution does not confer upon terminally ill individuals a fundamental right to physician-assisted suicide. The Court recognized that states have always criminalized suicide and assisting a suicide.
The Court also attempted to distinguish physician-assisted suicide from the rejection of life-sustaining medical treatment, which Court precedent recognizes as implicating fundamental liberty interests. Even though both of these acts can ultimately cause the patient's death, the Court held that the "active" and "passive" distinction was still relevant.
The Court argued that throughout U.S. history, the delivery of unwanted medical treatment was seen as a "battery" -- while assisting suicide was a crime. Therefore, the active/passive distinction matters in terms of deciding whether a fundamental right to physician-assisted suicide exists. The Court's fundamental rights analysis often considers whether an asserted right has received protection historically.
For more information, see: State's Hospitals Formulate Assisted-Suicide Plan