A History of the Law of Assisted Dying in the United States
64 Pages Posted: 25 Nov 2019
Date Written: November 21, 2019
The slow growth in the number of states that have enacted legislation to permit what is often referred to as “death with dignity” legislation—and more frequently referred to popularly as “physician assisted suicide” laws—has begun to accelerate in the past few years since the enactment of the first such statute in Oregon in 1994.
Like much other social reform legislation, there is a long history behind it. In this case, the history in the United States dates back at least to the latter part of the nineteenth century. Not until the 1980s, however, did these efforts gain any traction in courts and legislatures. What is probably more responsible than anything else for reviving interest in and providing momentum for legalization is the recognition by state courts, beginning with the Karen Ann Quinlan case in New Jersey in 1975, that the right to be free from unwanted interference with one’s bodily integrity encompasses a right to refuse even life-sustaining medical treatment. The recognition of this so-called right to die was only a short conceptual step—though a long political one—from recognizing that competent adults also should have the right to actively end their lives under certain conditions.
As of the end of 2019, the efforts of a small number of advocacy groups through lobbying, litigation, and public education have resulted in the enactment of death with dignity legislation in nine states and recognition of the right by one state supreme court. Despite dire warnings from opponents of legalization, it has not resulted in either wholesale abuse of the dying or the legalization of active euthanasia (either voluntary or involuntary).
Keywords: assisted suicide, euthanasia, mercy killing, physician assisted suicide, right to die, suicide
JEL Classification: K00, K29, K32
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation