The Right to Die Movement

The Right to Die Movement

Although the right to die movement is sometimes characterized under the heading of euthanasia, advocates are quick to point out that physician-assisted suicide is not about a doctor's decision to end the suffering of a terminally ill person, but rather about the decision by a terminally ill person to end their own under medical supervision. It is also worth noting that the right to die movement has historically focused not on active physician-assisted suicide, but on the patient's option to refuse treatment by way of advance directives.


Advocates for the right to die find the constitutional basis of their argument in the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause, which reads:

No State shall… deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…

The wording of the due process clause suggests that people are responsible for their own lives, and could, therefore, have a legal right to end them if they choose to do so. But this issue was likely not on the minds of constitutional framers, as physician-assisted suicide was not a public policy issue at the time, and conventional suicide leaves no defendant to indict.


The first major success of the right-to-die movement was the living will that was proposed by attorney Luis Kutner in 1969. As Kutner ​wrote:

When a patient is unconscious or is not in a position to give his consent, the law assumes a constructive consent to such treatment as will save his life. The physician's authority to proceed with treatment is based upon the presumption that the patient would have consented to treatment necessary to protect his life of health if he had been able to do so. But the problem arises as to how far such constructive consent should extend…
Where a patient undergoes surgery or other radical treatment, the surgeon or the hospital will require him to sign a legal statement indicating his consent to the treatment. The patient, however, while still retaining his mental faculties and the ability to convey his thoughts, could append to such a document a clause providing that, if his condition becomes incurable and his bodily state vegetative with no possibility that he could recover his complete faculties, his consent to further treatment would be terminated. The physician would then be precluded from prescribing further surgery, radiation, drugs or the running of resuscitating and other machinery, and the patient would be permitted to die by virtue of the physician's inaction…
The patient may not have had, however, the opportunity to give his consent at any point before treatment. He may have become the victim of a sudden accident or a stroke or coronary. Therefore, the suggested solution is that the individual, while fully in control of his faculties and his ability to express himself, indicate to what extent he would consent to treatment. The document indicating such consent may be referred to as "a living will," "a declaration determining the termination of life," "testament permitting death," "declaration for bodily autonomy," "declaration for ending treatment," "body trust," or other similar reference.

The living will was not Kutner's only contribution to international human rights; he is better known in some circles as one of the original co-founders of Amnesty International.


The Karen Ann Quinlan case sets the first significant legal precedent in the right-to-die movement.


Derek Humphry organizes the Hemlock Society, which is now known as Compassion & Choices.


Congress passes the Patient Self-Determination Act, expanding the reach of do-not-resuscitate orders.


Dr. Jack Kevorkian is charged with helping a patient commit suicide; he is acquitted, though he will later be convicted on second-degree murder charges in a similar incident.


In Washington v. Glucksberg, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rules that the due process clause does not, in fact, protect physician-assisted suicide.


Texas passes the Futile Care Law, which allows physicians to discontinue medical treatment in cases where they believe that it serves no purpose. The law requires that they provide notice to the family, includes an extensive appeals process for cases in which the family disagrees with the decision, but the statute still comes closer to permitting physician "death panels" than the laws of any other state. It is worth noting that while Texas allows physicians to discontinue treatment at their discretion, it does not allow physician-assisted suicide. Only two states-Oregon and Washington-have passed laws legalizing the procedure.