A History of the Law of Assisted Dying in the United States

64 Pages Posted: 25 Nov 2019

See all articles by Alan Meisel

Alan Meisel

University of Pittsburgh - School of Law (Emeritus)

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

Meisel, Alan, A History of the Law of Assisted Dying in the United States (November 21, 2019). SMU Law Review, Forthcoming, February 2020, U. of Pittsburgh Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2019-25, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3491401

Alan Meisel (Contact Author)

University of Pittsburgh - School of Law (Emeritus) ( email )

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Pittsburgh, PA 15260
United States
412-648-1384 (Phone)
412-648-2649 (Fax)

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