What Is Euthanasia?

Euthanasia and assisted suicide have important distinctions

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Euthanasia is the act of a physician or other third party ending a patient's life in response to severe, persistent, and untreatable pain and suffering. It is sometimes referred to as:

  • Assisted suicide
  • Physician-assisted death
  • Physician-assisted suicide
  • Mercy killing

However, assisted suicide and euthanasia are defined differently under the law.

Doctor taking pulse of senior man in hospital bed
David Sacks / Stone / Getty Images

Assisted Suicide

Assisted suicide involves intentionally and knowingly providing someone with the means to commit suicide. For example, a doctor may provide a prescription medication to someone knowing that they intend to commit suicide with it.

In an assisted suicide, the medical provider isn't involved in actually administering the drug or in the death itself, and the death generally doesn't occur in a medical facility.

Euthanasia

Euthanasia involves a person, such as a physician, knowingly acting to cause the death of a person suffering from severe and incurable pain. For example, a doctor may inject someone with drugs that induce coma and then stop the heart. 

Euthanasia is typically performed in a medical facility with medical staff present.

Classifications of Euthanasia

The two primary classifications of euthanasia are:

  • Voluntary euthanasia, which refers to the action taken by the physician and the patient, who both agree (with informed consent) to end the patient's life.
  • Involuntary euthanasia involves a third party taking a patient's life without their informed consent. This is common in veterinary medicine when animals are "put to sleep." In modern medicine, it could conceivably be applied to the act of taking the life of a terminally ill, suffering patient without the mental capacity to make their own decisions.

Legalities

Laws regarding assisted suicide and euthanasia vary between states and countries.

Assisted Suicide

In the United States, physician-assisted suicide is legal in several states, including:

  • California
  • Colorado
  • Hawaii
  • Maine
  • Montana
  • New Jersey
  • Oregon
  • Vermont
  • Washington (state)
  • Washington D.C.

It's also legal in a handful of other countries.

In a 2018 Gallup poll, 72% of Americans said doctors should be able to help terminally ill people die.

Euthanasia

Voluntary euthanasia is not legal in most parts of the world. The only countries that currently allow it are:

  • The Netherlands
  • Belgium
  • Luxembourg
  • Canada
  • Colombia

Involuntary Euthanasia

Involuntary euthanasia involving humans isn't legal anywhere.

Who Can Choose It?

In the places that allow it, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are only legal when someone has a terminal diagnosis and is suffering, with little or no relief. In such cases, the person may wish to control when and how they die.

A key part of physician-assisted suicide involves how the suicide is enacted: The patient must be the one to take the medication. It is illegal for a friend, family member, physician, or anyone else to administer the medication. Doing so crosses the legal line into the definition of euthanasia.

Whether physician-assisted suicide is ethically viable is contentiously debated.

What Is Palliative Sedation?

Sometimes called terminal sedation, palliative sedation is the progressive use of sedatives to achieve a desirable level of comfort for patients who are terminally ill and experiencing unrelieved suffering. Death usually follows shortly after a patient becomes sedated. 

Palliative sedation is neither euthanasia nor is it physician-assisted suicide as the intent is not to cause death. Though death may occur, it is often unclear whether the death occurred because of the sedation or the terminal illness itself.

Palliative sedation requires the consent of the patient. If a patient is unable to make decisions for himself or herself, the decision falls to the patient's designated healthcare decision-maker.

The patient is unable to deliver the correct dosage of a palliative sedative, which is usually given as a suppository or an infusion. Because the sedation is fast-acting, the sedatives can be only given by a physician, nurse, or other caregivers.

A Word From Verywell

The issue of helping someone die is a difficult one, legally, ethically, and emotionally—especially when it concerns you or someone you care about. Some people believe everyone should have the right to die when and how they choose while others feel life should continue for as long as possible before a natural death occurs.

At this moment, laws regarding euthanasia and assisted suicide are highly variable and strictly limit who is eligible and how an assisted death is carried out.

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  3. Gallup. Americans' strong support for euthanasia persists. Updated May 31, 2018.

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