Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly


Alexa Hansen


In Washington v. Glucksberg, the Supreme Court upheld a Washington statute that forbade physician-assisted suicide under rational basis review. One of the articulated state interests was the state's "unqualified interest in preserving life." However, the Court neglected to define when life ends, which would mark the end of the state's unqualified interest. Without a definition for the end of life, the Court assumed its eventual conclusion: it is impossible for an individual interest to overcome an unqualified interest in an undefined term.

By adopting "whole brain death" as the definition of the end of life, the Court would provide a floor beyond which no state could pursue its unqualified interest in preserving life. With such a definition in place, courts can engage in a reasoned analysis, balancing an individual's interest in ending his or her life against what is inevitably a sliding scale of a state's interest in preserving life. Under such a rubric, as an individual approaches the end of his or her life, there comes a point at which that individual's interest trumps the state's interest. While defining the end of life as "whole brain death" does not provide an automatic right for physician-assisted suicide, it does allow for the possibility that in some instances, the individual interest will prevail.