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Vacco v. Quill
Supreme Court of the United States (1996)



Agudath Israel takes both moral and legal exception to the notion that a person enjoys unfettered personal autonomy to decide that his life is no longer worth living. Society has the right to compel citizens to submit to vaccination, Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905); to insist that a child receive life-sustaining treatment even over the religiously motivated opposition of his parents, Jeovahs Witnesses v. King County Hospital Unit, 390 U.S. 598 (1968); to prevent a pregnant woman in her second trimester from receiving an abortion in an unlicensed facility, Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 163 (1973); to restrict the handling of poisonous snakes and drinking poisonous substances as part of a religious ceremony, State ex rel. Swann v. Pack, 527 S.W. 2d 99 (Tenn. 1975), cert denied 424 U.S. 954 (1976); to enact laws designed to protect users of highways "even against the consequences of their own action," Bisenius v. Karns, 165 N.W. 2d 377, 382, appeal dismissed 365 U.S. 709 (1969).

There are particularly strong reasons to reject the view that the generally accepted doctrine of personal autonomy in medical decision making should allow patients to enlist their doctors' help in committing suicide. The potential abuses of legalizing assisted suicide have been well catalogued by a host of legal and medical observers. For example, in its landmark report opposing assisted suicide, the 24-member New York State Task Force on Life and the Law, speaking unanimously, noted the following concerns: the pressures patients would feel, from their doctors and families, to opt for suicide; the inherent inequalities of our health care delivery systems which tend to discriminate against the poor, the handicapped and the elderly; the psychological vulnerability of the severely ill; the risk of misdiagnosis of the patient's condition; the likelihood in many cases that adequate treatment of pain and depression would dissuade the patient from seeking death. New York State Task Force on Life and the Law, When Death is Sought: Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia in the Medical Context 121-34 (1994). Indeed, these risk factors will often raise serious doubts about whether a patient's request for help in committing suicide is truly an expression of the patient's autonomous will.

We concur with the Task Force's observation (Report at 121) that, "as a society, we have better ways to give people greater control and relief from suffering than by making it easier for patients to commit suicide or to obtain a lethal injection."

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