the following posting is in reference to a class project regarding the topic of the right to live versus the right to die. our group of senior nursing students, at the university of west florida, will be presenting this topic for a healthcare issues course. please note that any replies may be incorporated in our powerpoint presentation to elicit group participation. we will present a scenario as well as questions to consider. please post your responses regarding this matter based on how you feel the situation should have been managed.
the right to die
the issue: does the constitution protect the decision to end one's own life, at least if one is terminally ill or in great pain?
the court first addressed the issue of the right to die in the 1990 case of cruzan v. director, missouri department of health
. in cruzan
, the court considered whether missouri could insist on proof by "clear and convincing evidence" of a comatose patient's desire to terminate her life before allowing her family's wish to disconnect her feeding tube to be carried out. although eight of nine justices--only scalia disagreed--concluded that the right to die was a liberty protected by the due process clause, a bare majority of the court upheld the state's insistence upon clear and specific evidence that the patient would wish to have intravenous feeding discontinued. the cruzan
decision spurred considerable evidence in "living wills" which clearly express an individuals desire to discontinue treatment or feeding in specified circumstances. (later, additional evidence of nancy's wishes was discovered and feeding was discontinued, leading to her death.)
seven years later the court faced right to die issues again in two cases involving challenges to laws criminalizing physician-assisted suicide. the lower courts in each case, one involving a washington state law and another a new york statute, found the laws unconstitutional--at least as applied (the 9th circuit decision rested on due process right-to-privacy grounds, the 2nd circuit decision on equal protection grounds.) the supreme court reversed in both cases, finding the laws to be constitutional. although the court interpreted cruzan
as recognizing a right to refuse medical treatment, the court found no constitutional basis for a right to assisted suicide. three justices in concurring opinions (o'connor, breyer, stevens) indicated that they might be willing to uphold "more particularized challenges" to such laws, such as--for example--an as applied
challenge to a state's refusal to assist a terminally ill patient in severe pain from ending his or her life.
in 2006, in gonzales v oregon, the court decided another right-to-die case, although this one primarily on administrative law grounds, not constitutional grounds. voting 6 to 3, the court ruled that attorney general ashcroft exceeded his powers under the controlled substances act when he threatened prosecution against oregon doctors prescribing lethal drugs under that state's death with dignity act. writing for the majority, justice kennedy concluded that regulation of medical practices was primarily a job for the states and that ashcroft failed to recognize "the background principles of our federal system."
1. doctors examining nancy cruzan concluded that she was in a persistent vegetative state, had no awareness of her environment, and had no hope of ever having awareness of her environment. what reason is there to doubt that any person in nancy's circumstances would want--if they were capable of even wanting--feeding to be continued? was there any evidence at all suggesting nancy would want to continue to "live"?
2. in what sense could nancy cruzan even be considered a "person"? what are the essential attributes of a person?
3. since nancy could feel neither embarrassment nor pain, isn't it really only the empathetic interests of the family at stake?
4. what if missouri defined nancy as dead and ordered her feeding discontinued against the wishes of her parents? would they have any constitutional claim?
5. was missouri using nancy as a symbol? as a symbol for what?
6. should it matter whether the decision involved was to discontinue feeding rather than extraordinary treatment such as a ventilator?
7. could missouri have prevented the cruzans from taking nancy to another state that would allow their wishes to be carried out?
8. if there was
a right to assisted suicide, as the 9th circuit found, why should the right be limited to terminally ill and competent adults? why would persons in great pain, or who are severely depressed, also have such a right?
9. does the distinction between passive euthanasia (withdrawal of feeding tubes, for example) and active euthanasia (administration of lethal drugs, for example) make sense to you?
10. what state interests supporting laws against physician-assisted suicide do you think are the strongest?
linder, d. (2007). does the constitution protect the decision to end one’s own life, at
least if own is terminally ill or in great pain? exploring constitutional law. retrieved
february 22, 2007, from
please peruse the above and consider your own position. as nursing students who will be graduating in two months, many of us haven’t had this experience. while we all have individual opinions we, as a group, believe the positions of our peers is of great significance. we welcome responses, from pre-nursing students as well as vested clinicians, in the hope that we, as well as you, will take something of consequence from this discussion.
Mar 9, '07
by NRSKarenRN, BSN, RN Moderator
aging with dignity - five wishes
[font=sylfaen]the five wishes document helps you express how you want to be treated if you are seriously ill and unable to speak for yourself. it is unique among all other living will and health agent forms because it looks to all of a person's needs: medical, personal, emotional and spiritual. five wishes also encourages discussing your wishes with your family and physician
lets your family and doctors know:
- which person you want to make health care decisions for you when you can't make them.
- the kind of medical treatment you want or don't want.
- how comfortable you want to be.
- how you want people to treat you.
- what you want your loved ones to know.
Last edit by NRSKarenRN on Mar 9, '07