Compassion in Dying (the predecessor of Compassion & Choices) sponsored these cases that sought to recognize and protect under the U.S. Constitution the right of terminally ill, mentally competent adults to choose medical aid in dying.
The Glucksberg case began in Washington State when plaintiffs sought to exempt the act of providing life-ending medication for terminally ill patients from a state law prohibiting assisted suicide. The Court found that providing those medications was not exempt, leading to a U.S. Supreme Court challenge.
Vacco originated in New York and challenged a state law that criminalized a physician’s participation in medical aid in dying. Under New York law, terminally ill patients could withhold or withdraw life-sustaining treatment, even when that decision would accelerate their death. However, terminally ill, mentally competent patients who did not need life-sustaining treatment were denied that same choice to avoid prolonged suffering.
In 1997, the United States Supreme Court, after hearing both cases, declined to recognize a federal constitutional right to medical aid in dying. However, the Court invited individual states to address the issue, saying, “Americans are engaged in an earnest and profound debate about the morality, legality and practicality of [medical aid in dying]. Our holding permits this debate to continue, as it should in a democratic society.”
These cases are widely recognized as a catalyst for drawing attention to the care of the dying, setting the stage for the consideration of medical aid-in-dying legislation at the state level. Additionally, the Glucksberg case further bolstered the constitutional right to refuse life-sustaining treatment, as first recognized in Cruzan (see below).
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.)