History of Assisted Suicide


The following excerpt is taken from the United States Supreme Court ruling in the 1997 Washington v. Glucksberg (opinion written by Chief Justice Rehnquist).

We begin, as we do in all due process cases, by examining our Nation's history, legal traditions, and practices. See, e.g., Casey, 505 U. S., at 849-850; Cruzan, 497 U. S., at 269-279; Moore v. East Cleveland, 431 U.S. 494, 503 (1977) (plurality opinion) (noting importance of "careful `respect for the teachings of history'"). In almost every State--indeed, in almost every western democracy--it is a crime to assist a suicide. [n.8] The States' assisted suicide bans are not innovations. Rather, they are longstanding expressions of the States' commitment to the protection and preservation of all human life. Cruzan, 497 U. S., at 280 ("[T]he States--indeed, all civilized nations--demonstrate their commitment to life by treating homicide as a serious crime. Moreover, the majority of States in this country have laws imposing criminal penalties on one who assists another to commit suicide"); see Stanford v. Kentucky, 492 U.S. 361, 373 (1989) ("[T]he primary and most reliable indication of [a national] consensus is . . . the pattern of enacted laws"). Indeed, opposition to and condemnation of suicide--and, therefore, of assisting suicide--are consistent and enduring themes of our philosophical, legal, and cultural heritages. See generally, Marzen, O'Dowd, Crone & Balch, Suicide: A Constitutional Right?, 24 Duquesne L. Rev. 1, 17-56 (1985) (hereinafter Marzen); New York State Task Force on Life and the Law, When Death is Sought: Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia in the Medical Context 77-82 (May 1994) (hereinafter New York Task Force).

More specifically, for over 700 years, the Anglo American common law tradition has punished or otherwise disapproved of both suicide and assisting suicide. [n.9] Cruzan, 497 U. S., at 294-295 (Scalia, J., concurring). In the 13th century, Henry de Bracton, one of the first legal treatise writers, observed that "[j]ust as a man may commit felony by slaying another so may he do so by slaying himself." 2 Bracton on Laws and Customs of England 423 (f. 150) (G. Woodbine ed., S. Thorne transl., 1968). The real and personal property of one who killed himself to avoid conviction and punishment for a crime were forfeit to the king; however, thought Bracton, "if a man slays himself in weariness of life or because he is unwilling to endure further bodily pain . . . [only] his movable goods [were] confiscated." Id., at 423-424 (f. 150). Thus, "[t]he principle that suicide of a sane person, for whatever reason, was a punishable felony was . . . introduced into English common law." [n.10] Centuries later, Sir William Blackstone, whose Commentaries on the Laws of England not only provided a definitive summary of the common law but was also a primary legal authority for 18th and 19th century American lawyers, referred to suicide as "self murder" and "the pretended heroism, but real cowardice, of the Stoic philosophers, who destroyed themselves to avoid those ills which they had not the fortitude to endure . . . ." 4 W. Blackstone, Commentaries *189. Blackstone emphasized that "the law has . . . ranked [suicide] among the highest crimes," ibid, although, anticipating later developments, he conceded that the harsh and shameful punishments imposed for suicide "borde[r] a little upon severity." Id., at *190.

For the most part, the early American colonies adopted the common law approach. For example, the legislators of the Providence Plantations, which would later become Rhode Island, declared, in 1647, that "[s]elf murder is by all agreed to be the most unnatural, and it is by this present Assembly declared, to be that, wherein he that doth it, kills himself out of a premeditated hatred against his own life or other humor: . . .his goods and chattels are the king's custom, but not his debts nor lands; but in case he be an infant, a lunatic, mad or distracted man, he forfeits nothing." The Earliest Acts and Laws of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations 1647-1719, p. 19 (J. Cushing ed. 1977). Virginia also required ignominious burial for suicides, and their estates were forfeit to the crown. A. Scott, Criminal Law in Colonial Virginia 108, and n. 93, 198, and n. 15 (1930).

Over time, however, the American colonies abolished these harsh common law penalties. William Penn abandoned the criminal forfeiture sanction in Pennsylvania in 1701, and the other colonies (and later, the other States) eventually followed this example. Cruzan, 497 U. S., at 294 (Scalia, J., concurring). Zephaniah Swift, who would later become Chief Justice of Connecticut, wrote in 1796 that

"[t]here can be no act more contemptible, than to attempt to punish an offender for a crime, by exercising a mean act of revenge upon lifeless clay, that is insensible of the punishment. There can be no greater cruelty, than the inflicting [of] a punishment, as the forfeiture of goods, which must fall solely on the innocent offspring of the offender. . . . [Suicide] is so abhorrent to the feelings of mankind, and that strong love of life which is implanted in the human heart, that it cannot be so frequently committed, as to become dangerous to society. There can of course be no necessity of any punishment." 2 Z. Swift, A System of the Laws of the State of Connecticut 304 (1796).

This statement makes it clear, however, that the movement away from the common law's harsh sanctions did not represent an acceptance of suicide; rather, as Chief Justice Swift observed, this change reflected the growing consensus that it was unfair to punish the suicide's family for his wrongdoing. Cruzan, supra, at

294 (Scalia, J., concurring). Nonetheless, although States moved away from Blackstone's treatment of suicide, courts continued to condemn it as a grave public wrong. See, e.g., Bigelow v. Berkshire Life Ins. Co., 93 U.S. 284, 286 (1876) (suicide is "an act of criminal self destruction"); Von Holden v. Chapman, 87 App. Div. 2d 66, 70-71, 450 N. Y. S. 2d 623, 626-627 (1982); Blackwood v. Jones, 111 Fla. 528, 532, 149 So. 600, 601 (1933) ("No sophistry is tolerated . . . which seek[s] to justify self destruction as commendable or even a matter of personal right").

That suicide remained a grievous, though nonfelonious, wrong is confirmed by the fact that colonial and early state legislatures and courts did not retreat from prohibiting assisting suicide. Swift, in his early 19th century treatise on the laws of Connecticut, stated that "[i]f one counsels another to commit suicide, and the other by reason of the advice kills himself, the advisor is guilty of murder as principal." 2 Z. Swift, A Digest of the Laws of the State of Connecticut 270 (1823). This was the well established common law view, see In re Joseph G., 34 Cal. 3d 429, 434-435, 667 P. 2d 1176, 1179 (1983); Commonwealth v. Mink, 123 Mass. 422, 428 (1877) ("`Now if the murder of one's self is felony, the accessory is equally guilty as if he had aided and abetted in the murder'") (quoting Chief Justice Parker's charge to the jury in Commonwealth v. Bowen, 13 Mass. 356 (1816)), as was the similar principle that the consent of a homicide victim is "wholly immaterial to the guilt of the person who cause[d] [his death]," 3 J. Stephen, A History of the Criminal Law of England 16 (1883); see 1 F. Wharton, Criminal Law 451-452 (9th ed. 1885); Martin v. Commonwealth, 184 Va. 1009, 1018-1019, 37 S. E. 2d 43, 47 (1946) (" `The right to life and to personal security is not only sacred in the estimation of the common law, but it is inalienable' "). And the prohibitions against assisting suicide never contained exceptions for those who were near death. Rather, "[t]he life of those to whom life ha[d] become a burden--of those who [were] hopelessly diseased or fatally wounded--nay, even the lives of criminals condemned to death, [were] under the protection of law, equally as the lives of those who [were] in the full tide of life's enjoyment, and anxious to continue to live." Blackburn v. State, 23 Ohio St. 146, 163 (1872); see Bowen, supra, at 360 (prisoner who persuaded another to commit suicide could be tried for murder, even though victim was scheduled shortly to be executed).

The earliest American statute explicitly to outlaw assisting suicide was enacted in New York in 1828, Act of Dec. 10, 1828, ch. 20, 4, 1828 N. Y. Laws 19 (codified at 2 N. Y. Rev. Stat. pt. 4, ch. 1, tit. 2, art. 1, 7, p. 661 (1829)), and many of the new States and Territories followed New York's example. Marzen 73-74. Between 1857 and 1865, a New York commission led by Dudley Field drafted a criminal code that prohibited "aiding" a suicide and, specifically, "furnish[ing] another person with any deadly weapon or poisonous drug, knowing that such person intends to use such weapon or drug in taking his own life." Id., at 76-77. By the time the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, it was a crime in most States to assist a suicide. See Cruzan, supra, at 294-295 (Scalia, J., concurring). The Field Penal Code was adopted in the Dakota Territory in 1877, in New York in 1881, and its language served as a model for several other western States' statutes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Marzen 76-77, 205-206, 212-213. California, for example, codified its assisted suicide prohibition in 1874, using language similar to the Field Code's. [n.11] In this century, the Model Penal Code also prohibited "aiding" suicide, prompting many States to enact or revise their assisted suicide bans. [n.12] The Code's drafters observed that "the interests in the sanctity of life that are represented by the criminal homicide laws are threatened by one who expresses a willingness to participate in taking the life of another, even though the act may be accomplished with the consent, or at the request, of the suicide victim." American Law Institute, Model Penal Code 210.5, Comment 5, p. 100 (Official Draft and Revised Comments 1980).

Though deeply rooted, the States' assisted suicide bans have in recent years been reexamined and, generally, reaffirmed. Because of advances in medicine and technology, Americans today are increasingly likely to die in institutions, from chronic illnesses. President's Comm'n for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research, Deciding to Forego Life Sustaining Treatment 16-18 (1983). Public concern and democratic action are therefore sharply focused on how best to protect dignity and independence at the end of life, with the result that there have been many significant changes in state laws and in the attitudes these laws reflect. Many States, for example, now permit "living wills," surrogate health care decisionmaking, and the withdrawal or refusal of life sustaining medical treatment. See Vacco v. Quill, post, at 9-11; 79 F. 3d, at 818-820; People v. Kevorkian, 447 Mich. 436, 478-480, and nn. 53-56, 527 N. W. 2d 714, 731-732, and nn. 53-56 (1994). At the same time, however, voters and legislators continue for the most part to reaffirm their States' prohibitions on assisting suicide.


Footnotes:

8. See Compassion in Dying v. Washington, 79 F. 3d 790, 847, and nn. 10-13 (CA9 1996) (Beezer, J., dissenting) ("In total, forty four states, the District of Columbia and two territories prohibit or condemn assisted suicide") (citing statutes and cases); Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 107 D. L. R. (4th) 342, 404 (Can. 1993) ("[A] blanket prohibition on assisted suicide . . . is the norm among western democracies") (discussing assisted suicide provisions in Austria, Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, and France). Since the Ninth Circuit's decision, Louisiana, Rhode Island, and Iowa have enacted statutory assisted suicide bans. La. Rev. Stat. Ann. 14:32.12 (Supp. 1997); R. I. Gen. Laws 11-60-1, 11-60-3 (Supp. 1996); Iowa Code Ann. 707A.2, 707A.3 (Supp. 1997). For a detailed history of the States' statutes, see Marzen, O'Dowd, Crone & Balch, Suicide: A Constitutional Right?, 24 Duquesne L. Rev. 1, 148-242 (1985) (Appendix) (hereinafter Marzen).

9. The common law is thought to have emerged through the expansion of pre-Norman institutions sometime in the 12th century. J. Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History 11 (2d ed. 1979). England adopted the ecclesiastical prohibition on suicide five centuries earlier, in the year 673 at the Council of Hereford, and this prohibition was reaffirmed by King Edgar in 967. See G. Williams, The Sanctity of Life and the Criminal Law 257 (1957).

10. Marzen 59. Other late medieval treatise writers followed and restated Bracton; one observed that "man slaughter" may be "[o]f [one]self; as in case, when people hang themselves or hurt themselves, or otherwise kill themselves of their own felony" or "[o]f others; as by beating, famine, or other punishment; in like cases, all are man slayers." A. Horne, The Mirrour of Justices, ch. 1, 9, pp. 41-42 (W. Robinson ed. 1903). By the mid 16th century, the Court at Common Bench could observe that "[suicide] is an Offence against Nature, against God, and against the King. . . . [T]o destroy one's self is contrary to Nature, and a Thing most horrible." Hales v. Petit, 1 Plowd. Com. 253, 261, 75 Eng. Rep. 387, 400 (1561-1562).

In 1644, Sir Edward Coke published his Third Institute, a lodestar for later common lawyers. See T. Plucknett, A Concise History of the Common Law 281-284 (5th ed. 1956). Coke regarded suicide as a category of murder, and agreed with Bracton that the goods and chattels--but not, for Coke, the lands--of a sane suicide were forfeit. 3 E. Coke, Institutes *54. William Hawkins, in his 1716 Treatise of the Pleas of the Crown, followed Coke, observing that "our laws have always had . . . an abhorrence of this crime." 1 W. Hawkins, Pleas of the Crown, ch. 27, 4, p. 164 (T. Leach ed. 1795).

11. In 1850, the California legislature adopted the English common law, under which assisting suicide was, of course, a crime. Act of Apr. 13, 1850, ch. 95, 1850 Cal. Stats. 219. The provision adopted in 1874 provided that "[e]very person who deliberately aids or advises, or encourages another to commit suicide, is guilty of a felony." Act of Mar. 30, 1874, ch. 614, 13, 400, 255 (codified at Cal. Penal Code 400 (T. Hittel ed. 1876)).

12 %A person who purposely aids or solicits another to commit suicide is guilty of a felony in the second degree if his conduct causes such suicide or an attempted suicide, and otherwise of a misdemeanor." American Law Institute, Model Penal Code 210.5(2) (Official Draft and Revised Comments 1980).


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