Does Euthanasia Have a Place in Modern Medicine?

Euthanasia is the practice of intentionally ending a person’s life in order to relieve their pain and suffering. [1] Euthanasia comes from the Greek words, Eu (good) and Thanatosis (death) and it means “Good Death”, but is it really all that good? [2]

There are different types of euthanasia:

  • Active euthanasia – a person directly and deliberately causes a patient’s death.
  • Passive euthanasia – death is brought about by an omission – i.e. when someone lets the person die. This can be by withdrawing or withholding treatment.
  • Voluntary euthanasia – a person makes a conscious decision to die and asks for help to do so.
  • Non-voluntary euthanasia – a person is unconscious or otherwise unable (for example, a young baby or a person of extremely low intelligence) to make a meaningful choice between living and dying, and another person takes the decision on their behalf.
  • Assisted suicide – where the person who is going to die needs help to kill themselves and asks for it.
  • Involuntary euthanasia – a person wants to live but is killed anyway.
  • Indirect euthanasia – providing treatment (usually to reduce pain) that has the side effect of speeding the patient’s death. The doctrine of double effect can be used to justify this type of euthanasia. This doctrine says that if doing something morally good has a morally bad side-effect, it is ethical to do it, providing the bad side-effect was not intended. This can be true even if the bad side-effect was anticipated. [3][4]

When considering the different ethical principles,”the practice of euthanasia, under some circumstances, is morally required by the two most widely regarded principals that guide medical practice: respect for patient autonomy and promoting patient’s best interests”. [5] Essentially, a patient has the ultimate say when decisions are being made about their treatment, and if a patient is in tremendous pain, it may be the most ethical thing to kill them in order to alleviate their suffering. However, these principles can be seen to contradict another ethical principle – non-maleficence – which states that a medical practitioner has a duty to do no harm or allow harm to be caused to a patient through neglect. [6] By committing euthanasia, a medical practitioner can be considered to be committing the greatest harm of all – to take away a life. Although in some circumstances, euthanasia can be considered to be the lesser evil and that there is more harm in letting a person live in insufferable pain.

Different countries have different laws on euthanasia. In the UK, active euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal, whilst passive euthanasia is not illegal, after the Bland ruling of 1993. [7] In most countries, any type of euthanasia is illegal. There are only a few countries in which assisted suicide is legal: Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland and a few US states but there are variations in the legality of assisted suicide in these countries. [8]

Euthanasia has always been and will continue to be, a controversial topic. I personally believe that it is difficult for euthanasia to be a part of modern medicine. When euthanasia is accepted, the lives of people who are thought to be undesirable can be seen to be less than others. What would stop the involuntary euthanasia of disabled young babies who are considered ‘imperfect’?  Also, euthanasia may not be in the patient’s best interest, even if they have consented. For example, due to mental illnesses such as depression, which may leave a patient believing their life is worthless and that they are better off dead. In this case, euthanasia would not be the correct form of treatment. However, I do understand that euthanasia can be the most compassionate form of treatment for a patient who is in insufferable pain. In order for euthanasia to have a place in modern medicine, very strict rules and regulations would have to be implemented to ensure that no life is wrongfully taken away.

By Bernice Mangundu.


  5. Medical Ethics: A Very Short Introduction by Tony Hope

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