What doesn’t count as euthanasia or assisted suicide?

Research shows that many people think that relatively normal medical decisions count as a form of euthanasia.[1] However, withdrawing treatment, withholding life-sustaining treatment, and pain relief are all distinct from euthanasia and assisted suicide because they do not intentionally hasten death, and are focused on allowing nature to take its course.

Don’t doctors do this already? Isn’t euthanasia already happening under the guise of “just a little more morphine to make someone comfortable?”

In some cases, the most effective way to treat a dying patient’s symptoms and keep them as comfortable as possible is to give them treatment, such as high doses of morphine. For these patients, the dose required to effectively treat their symptoms may be so high that it could have the unintended effect of shortening the patient’s life. If a medical practitioner provides this treatment with the goal of relieving the patient’s pain or managing their care, while foreseeing the potential result of an unintended earlier death, it is considered a “double effect.” This “double effect” is distinct from euthanasia or assisted suicide (where intentionally lethal drugs are given with the intent or purpose of ending the patient’s life), and is allowed in current law as with other palliative care treatments that are given to improve a patient’s quality of life and comfort while they are alive. As palliative care physician Baroness Ilora Finlay puts it:

Prescribing morphine properly is humane, compassionate and safe – it does not kill. Just because there is a last dose of a drug – or a last cup of tea – does not mean that either killed the patient dying of advanced disease.[2]


[1] “Kiwis are confused about what ‘assisted dying’ means”, (Scoop, 1 November 2018),  https://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PO1811/S00009/kiwis-are-confused-about-what-assisted-dying-means.htm, accessed 20/4/20.
[2] I Finlay, “Assisted dying laws do not always protect the vulnerable”, (The Guardian, 28 October 2008), https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/oct/28/euthanasia-assisted-suicide-baroness-finlay, accessed 20/04/20.

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