Inmates Have No Right to Starve to Death

Supreme Court won’t allow convict to “let nature take its course.”

Charles McNabb was placed in detention at the Airway Heights Corrections Center outside Spokane after he was convicted in 2004 of setting fire to his estranged wife's house the previous year. There he stopped eating, until the state's Department of Corrections finally strapped him down and force-fed him through a tube laced through his nostril. McNabb then sued DOC, saying that in force-feeding him the agency violated his right to privacy. His case was thrown out in Superior Court and ended up in appellate court, where he argued that he was not trying to commit suicide, only "let[ting] nature take its course." He failed to persuade the appellate court, which ruled that not only did his actions look a lot like suicide, which the state has the right to prevent, but that inmates don't have the same right to privacy enjoyed by free citizens. Last week, in an 8-1 decision, the State Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court's ruling, noting that while it is constitutionally acceptable to refuse nutrition as part of a hunger strike, "the State's interests in applying DOC's force-feeding policy to McNabb outweigh his right to refuse artificial means of nutrition and hydration." In addition to Justice Mary Fairhurst's majority opinion, Justice Barbara Madsen wrote a concurring opinion that included the following: "Prisoners who are otherwise healthy have no right to refuse artificial means of nutrition and hydration in an effort to end their lives. Contrary to the inference of the dissent, Charles McNabb is not conducting a hunger strike—he is attempting to commit suicide. The extraordinary intervention in this case was initiated only when medical staff issued a written determination that McNabb's health was threatened. McNabb has no right to starve himself to death by refusing sustenance while in the custody of the State—this is not a privacy right that citizens of the state hold or expect to hold." In the aforementioned dissent, Justice Richard Sanders wrote: "This case is no more about the right to suicide than Lawrence v. Texas was about the right to sodomy. Rather, this case is about 'the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men,' namely, 'the right to be let alone.'"

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