Euthanasia, also known as assisted suicide, physician-assisted suicide (dying), doctor-assisted dying (suicide), and more loosely termed mercy killing, means to take a deliberate action with the express intention of ending a life to relieve intractable (persistent, unstoppable) suffering.
Some interpret euthanasia as the practice of ending a life in a painless manner. Many disagree with this interpretation, because it needs to include a reference to intractable suffering.
In the majority of countries euthanasia or assisted suicide is against the law. According to the National Health Service (NHS), UK, it is illegal to help somebody kill themselves, regardless of circumstances. Assisted suicide, or voluntary euthanasia carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison in the UK. In the USA the law varies in some states (see further down).
There are two main classifications of euthanasia:
- Voluntary euthanasia – this is euthanasia conducted with consent. Since 2009 voluntary euthanasia has been legal in Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Switzerland, and the states of Oregon (USA) and Washington (USA).
- Involuntary euthanasia – euthanasia is conducted without consent. The decision is made by another person because the patient is incapable to doing so himself/herself.
There are two procedural classifications of euthanasia:
- Passive euthanasia – this is when life-sustaining treatments are withheld. The definition of passive euthanasia is often not clear cut. For example, if a doctor prescribes increasing doses of opioid analgesia (strong painkilling medications) which may eventually be toxic for the patient, some may argue whether passive euthanasia is taking place – in most cases, the doctor’s measure is seen as a passive one. Many claim that the term is wrong, because euthanasia has not taken place, because there is no intention to take life.
- Active euthanasia – lethal substances or forces are used to end the patient’s life. Active euthanasia includes life-ending actions conducted by the patient or somebody else.
Active euthanasia is a much more controversial subject than passive euthanasia. Individuals are torn by religious, moral, ethical and compassionate arguments surrounding the issue. Euthanasia has been a very controversial and emotive topic for a long time.
The term assisted suicide has several different interpretations. Perhaps the most widely used and accepted is “the intentional hastening of death by a terminally ill patient with assistance from a doctor, relative, or another person.”
Some people will insist that something along the lines of “in order relieve intractable (persistent, unstoppable) suffering” needs to be added to the meaning, while others insist that “terminally ill patient” already includes that meaning.
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