Liberty Interest: Casey and Cruzan

Liberty Interest: Casey and Cruzan

The United States is deeply rooted in history and tradition. The laws we adhere to today are rooted in the societal construction of right and wrong. Societal mores are often the foundation of laws that are created to protect our concept of fundamental liberty. Laws, intended to protect the health and well-being of persons, at times create a conflict.

A friend broached the concept of fundamental human rights with me when discussing a hypothetical case he was reviewing. He wanted to discuss a hypothetical case he was reviewing. He believed in the Supreme Court rulings Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health and In re Quinlan: the choice to remove life-saving care is not the same as a physician assisting a patient in hastening their death. He argued that the removal of life-saving treatment does hasten death, but the life being lived could not be classified as a promising and fulfilling life. The patient would not be able to contribute to society. Yet, in reviewing his hypothetical case he began to wonder if the distinct lines he drew between withdrawing life-support and helping a patient hasten death were distinct.

The case presented a hypothetical patient who was seeking to hasten her death because her illness was robbing her of her ability to enjoy life. The illness was terminal and she knew the stages of the disease would ravage her body, leaving her bedridden without the use of her limbs. She wanted to seek and secure a physician who would help her die when her body began to fail. The state she lived in did not allow her to make the decision of how and when to die because the laws enforced the state’s right to protect the sanctity of life. This made my friend wonder, “does the state’s interest violate the liberty interest of the person?”

Cruzan’s majority opinion stated “A competent person has a liberty interest under the Due Process Clause in refusing unwanted medical treatment. Cf., e.g., Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11, 24-30. However, the question whether that constitutional right has been violated must be determined by balancing the liberty interest against relevant state interests. For purposes of this case, it is assumed that a competent person would have a constitutionally protected right to refuse lifesaving hydration and nutrition” [1].  By recognizing a competent person’s right to refuse unwanted medical care, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) recognized a liberty interest in hastening the end of one’s own life. Liberty interest lies in the belief that people have the right to make decisions based on personal dignity and autonomy.

Another decision by SCOTUS reinforced liberty interest. In a juxtaposition of the right to life and the right to end life, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey discussed the Due Process Clause and liberty interest. “Similarly, if Roe is seen as stating a rule of personal autonomy and bodily integrity, akin to cases recognizing limits on governmental power to mandate medical treatment or to bar its rejection, this Court's post-Roe decisions accord with Roe's view that a State's interest in the protection of life falls short of justifying any plenary override of individual liberty claims. See, e.g., Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Dept. of Health, 497 U.S. 261"] 497 U.S. 261” [2].

The Court’s decisions combines a state’s right to protect life and the individual’s right to exercise their liberty interest by securing a physician’s assistance in hastening their death. The value of a life is subjective only to those who aren’t living the life being discussed.    

Our belief in the right to personal dignity and autonomy coincides with the right to choose.  The discussion surrounding physician-assisted death and liberty includes freedom of conscience and belief. Life, the right to choose, and autonomy are philosophical issues couched in ethical decisions.

References

  1. Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health, 497 U.S. 261 (No. 88-1503) (1990).

  2. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992).

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