Court Finds No Constitutional Right to Assisted Suicide in Massachusetts

By Wesley J. Smith

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled 4–2 that the state constitution does not compel allowing physician-assisted suicide. From Kligler v Attorney General

Although we recognize the paramount importance and profound significance of all end-of-life decisions, after careful consideration, we conclude that the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights does not reach so far as to protect physician-assisted suicide. We conclude as well that the law of manslaughter may prohibit physician-assisted suicide, and does so, without offending constitutional protections.

The case involved a doctor who wanted to assist the suicide of his terminally ill patient–although the patient’s cancer “has currently been contained.” The patient concomitantly wants the right to be assisted so that if he is ever diagnosed with “six months to live,” he can end it all with the help of a doctor. But since the patient would not qualify for the purported right even if it were ruled to exist, the Court dismissed the patient’s claim.

(An aside: The six-months-to-live gambit is just a euthanasia movement talking point. People so diagnosed may never die of their illness. And dying people deserve suicide prevention just like anyone else. Besides, if the issue is preventing suffering, many people suffer more and for a longer period than the dying. The purpose of the framing is to get people to accept the premise that suicide/lethal injection is a medical treatment. Once that happens, it will spread from there to encompass increasing categories of people, as it has in Canada.)

The doctor in the case indicated that he wanted to assist the suicides of qualified patients–but won’t because of fear of prosecution for manslaughter. That, the court ruled, is a justiciable issue; assisted suicide could qualify as that crime:

As the motion judge concluded, physician-assisted suicide could constitute wanton or reckless conduct. Our case law demonstrates that knowingly providing someone who has expressed an interest in ending his or her life with the means to do so may be considered wanton or reckless behavior…That a doctor’s intent in providing the lethal medication was to alleviate a patient’s suffering is irrelevant, as conduct may be wanton or reckless even where the actor “meant no harm to the victim.

The Court adopted a more comprehensive view of what constitutes a fundamental right than the U.S. Supreme Court has adopted in Dobbs, the recent abortion case. Still, it found that there is no right in Massachusetts to suicide:

There is little question that, throughout history, American society has not regarded suicide, in any form, as an individual right. To the contrary, both the Commonwealth and the nation at large have long treated suicide as a social problem to be prevented and remedied.

Noting that suicide per se is no longer a crime, the court found:

Even if suicide was not technically a crime, courts continued to consider it a “grave public wrong.”…To this day, courts regard suicide as a serious social ill that the State has a strong interest in preventing…Perhaps for this reason, assisting another to commit suicide largely has been, and continues to be, regarded as a serious crime.

While assisted suicide has become more acceptable among the public in recent years, the court acknowledged, it still is not a widely accepted practice in the medical profession. Nor is the right to privacy implicated:

Steinbach [the want-to-be suicide assister] asserts that if the right to privacy includes the right to refuse unwanted medical care, it also necessarily must include the right to physician-assisted suicide, because there is no meaningful distinction between the two. We do not agree, but, rather, recognize an important distinction between the refusal of medical treatment and physician-assisted suicide, which lies in fundamental legal principles of cause and effect; whereas withdrawing or withholding medical care is not the primary cause of a patient’s death, physician-assisted suicide is.

Laws against assisted suicide serve vital state functions and whether to legalize doctor-hastened death is a question for the political branches to decide:

Application of the law of manslaughter to physician-assisted suicide passes constitutional muster because the law is reasonably related to the State’s legitimate interests in preserving life; preventing suicide; protecting the integrity of the medical profession; ensuring that all end-of-life decisions are informed, voluntary, and rational; and “protecting vulnerable people from indifference, prejudice, and psychological and financial pressure to end their lives.“…

The desirability and practicality of physician-assisted suicide raises not only weighty philosophical questions about the nature of life and death, but also difficult technical questions about the regulation of the medical field. These questions are best left to the democratic process, where their resolution can be informed by robust public debate and thoughtful research by experts in the field.

The issue will now be taken up by the liberal Massachusetts Legislature, where opponents will have their hands full trying to maintain the current illegal status. But that is where the question belongs, not in the courts.

I just hope that state’s legislators read this decision carefully because, as the paragraph I quoted above demonstrates, maintaining the law against assisted suicide serves and protects the general welfare and is in the public interest.

Editor’s note. Wesley’s great columns are found at National Review Online and are reposted with his permission.