In Incognito: The Principle of Double Effect in American Constitutional Law

95 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2005

See all articles by Edward C. Lyons

Edward C. Lyons

Oklahoma City University School of Law


In Vacco v. Quill, 521 U.S. 793 (1997), the Supreme Court for the first time in American case law explicitly applied the principle of double effect to reject an equal protection claim to physician-assisted suicide. Double effect, traced historically to Thomas Aquinas, proposes that under certain circumstances it is permissible unintentionally to cause foreseen evil effects that would not be permissible to cause intentionally. The court rejected the constitutional claim on the basis of a distinction marked out by the principle, i.e., between directly intending the death of a terminally ill patient as opposed to merely foreseeing that death as a consequence of medical treatment. The Court held that the distinction comports with fundamental legal principles of causation and intent. Id. at 802.

Critics allege that the principle itself is intrinsically flawed and that, in any event, its employment in Vacco is without legal precedent. I argue in response to contemporary objections that double effect is a valid principle of ethical reflection (Part II); claims to the contrary notwithstanding, double effect analysis is a pervasive, albeit generally unacknowledged principle employed regularly in American case law (Part III); and drawing on the preceding two sections, Vacco's application of the principle of double effect is appropriate (Part IV).

My conclusion is that [o]peration of some form of the principle, by whatever name, is inevitable. In an imperfect world where duties and interests collide, the possibility of choices of action foreseen to have both good and evil consequences cannot be avoided. In rare circumstances, ethics and the law require that a person refrain from acting altogether. More often, however, they provide that a determination of whether an actor may pursue a good effect although knowing it will or may unintentionally cause an harmful effect requires a more complex analysis - a double effect analysis.

Keywords: Equal protection, double effect, intention, physician-assisted suicide, Constitutional Law, Bioethics

Suggested Citation

Lyons, Edward C., In Incognito: The Principle of Double Effect in American Constitutional Law. Florida Law Review, Vol. 57, No. 3, pp. 469-563, July 2005, Available at SSRN:

Edward C. Lyons (Contact Author)

Oklahoma City University School of Law ( email )

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