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The following announcement was released by the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics on June 16, 2003. This document was updated on June 17, 2003.

Supreme Court Upholds Right to Refuse Mind-Altering Drugs

CCLE Amicus Brief Argues Forced Medication Infringes Fundamental Liberty

The United States Supreme Court upheld the right to refuse unwanted psychotropic medication in its landmark decision in Sell v. United States, delivered earlier today. Ruling in favor of a St. Louis dentist who resisted government attempts to force medicate him with anti-psychotic drugs, the Court held that while involuntary medication solely for trial competence purposes may be appropriate in some instances, those instances would likely be "rare."

Charged with Medicaid fraud in 1997, Dr. Sell was found incompetent to stand trial because he suffered from paranoid delusions. Dr. Sell was determined not to pose a danger to himself or others. Although anti-psychotic drugs [have] severe side effects including neurological damage in a large percentage of cases, and only suppress the symptoms of mental illness, the government claimed the authority to chemically compel Dr. Sell's mental competence by forcing medication on him.

"By ruling in Dr. Sell's favor the Court has vindicated the fundamental right of every American to control his or her own thought processes," said Richard Glen Boire, Director of the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics (CCLE), a nonprofit law and policy center that filed an amicus brief on behalf of Dr. Sell. But the Court stopped short of considering whether forced medication violated the First Amendment, as the CCLE had urged them to do. "They made a good ruling, but they missed a major opportunity to recognize that thought is, at least partly, rooted in brain chemistry and that giving the government broad powers to directly manipulate the brain chemistry of a non-violent citizen would go against our nation's most cherished values," said Boire.

Hailed as a victory for mental health advocates, today's decision could have had implications that reached far beyond health care, but the Court failed to address several fundamental issues raised by the case. "Emerging neurotechnology from pharmaceuticals to brain scanners are making consciousness more accessible and manipulable than ever before," said Boire. "The Court had a chance to update legal thinking about cognition in a way [that] could have been very relevant now and in the coming decades," said Boire. At minimum, the four-part test announced by the Court will ensure that the lower courts considering forced medication orders ask why it should be medically appropriate to force drug an individual who is 1) not dangerous, and 2) competent to make up his own mind about treatment.

[A copy of the decision is posted here.]

For the CCLE's index of materials regarding the Sell case, go to:

Page updated Nov. 4, 2009.