What Is Euthanasia?

Euthanasia and assisted suicide have important distinctions

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Euthanasia is when a doctor gives someone who is dying medication that will end their life. Sometimes other words are used in place of euthanasia, including:

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

Legal and medical experts, though, define assisted suicide and euthanasia differently.

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

Assisted Suicide

Assisted suicide is when ill people kill themselves with someone else’s help. There are many different ways that a person might help with a suicide. But the common definition of assisted suicide says:

  • The person who wants to commit suicide has asked for help.
  • The person knows that what their asking will cause death.
  • The person assisting knows what they’re doing. They intentionally help.
  • The person assisting provides medication to the person committing suicide.
  • People who want to die take the drugs themselves.

In physician-assisted suicide, a doctor provides medication to the person who wants to die. The doctor may also give instructions on how to take the medication so it'll cause death. But the doctor does not inject the medication or even help the sick person swallow a drug.

Euthanasia

Euthanasia is different than assisted suicide because, with euthanasia, the doctor actually administers the medication that causes death. For example, a doctor may inject a dying person with drugs that will stop the heart. Usually, euthanasia happens in a hospital or medical facility.

Types of Euthanasia

There are two types of euthanasia:

  • Voluntary euthanasia: The sick person asks the doctor for help and the doctor agrees. So both act willingly.
  • Involuntary euthanasia: Someone causes a sick person’s death without the sick person giving permission.

Recap

With physician-assisted suicide, the sick person takes the medication. If a doctor, friend, family member, or anyone else administers the medication, it is considered euthanasia. 

Legal Issues

Laws for assisted suicide and euthanasia vary by state and country.

Assisted Suicide

In the United States, physician-assisted suicide is allowed in:

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

Several countries have also passed laws allowing doctors to assist with a suicide.

Many Americans seem to support laws allowing physician-assisted suicide. In a poll of 1,024 Americans, 72% of people said doctors should be able to help someone with an incurable disease end their life if they wished.

If a doctor or anyone else actually gives the person the lethal medication, the act is considered euthanasia. That can be a crime even in areas have assisted-suicide laws.

Euthanasia

Voluntary euthanasia is illegal in most parts of the world. Countries that do allow it include:

  • The Netherlands
  • Belgium
  • Luxembourg
  • Canada
  • Colombia

Involuntary Euthanasia

Involuntary euthanasia is illegal worldwide.

Who Can Choose It?

In places where euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are legal, they’re only allowed if you have a terminal diagnosis. “Terminal” means you cannot be cured and doctors expect you to die from your illness.

In order to legally end your life, you may also be asked to show that you’re suffering severely from pain. Under the law, you may then be allowed to decide when and how you want to die.

People in many states and countries are calling for more laws that will allow them to choose how to end their lives. They call this "dying with dignity." It's a topic that is hotly debated.

While a growing number of people think assisted suicide or euthanasia should be allowed, many others disagree. Those people say that it’s not right for doctors to help people die. The American Medical Association (AMA) says doctors should work on making terminal patients comfortable. They shouldn't help them die. The AMA states: “Physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer.”

What Is Palliative Sedation?

Palliative sedation is when a doctor gives a terminal patient medication that will ease severe pain. This practice is sometimes more acceptable to people who disagree with assisted suicide.

The AMA says it’s okay for doctors to give high doses of sedatives, which are drugs that can relax the body and put you to sleep. In these instances, doctors may make the patient unconscious with medications. However, the drugs should never be used to intentionally cause a person’s death.

Sedation that makes a patient unconscious might be done as part of palliative care, which works to make a person as comfortable and happy as possible when they’re in the final stages before death.

Palliative sedation requires:

  • Permission from the person who’s sick
  • If the patient isn’t able to understand the situation and give permission, the person in charge of their healthcare decisions can give permission.
  • A healthcare professional who can administer the drugs

Palliative sedatives are usually given in an IV that goes directly into your bloodstream or as a suppository. A suppository is medication that’s inserted into your rectum where it dissolves into your body’s systems. Because the medication is fast-acting, sedatives must be given by a physician, nurse, or other healthcare professional.

Recap

Palliative sedation is not euthanasia, and it is not physician-assisted suicide. People do sometimes die while under heavy sedation. However, that’s not the goal of the treatment. In these cases, it may not be clear whether someone died because of the medication or the illness.

Summary

There are clear legal differences between euthanasia and assisted suicide. In euthanasia, a doctor performs an act that causes someone’s death. In assisted suicide, someone gives an ill person the means they can use to take their own life. The arguments for or against ending a person’s life are never so neat and clear, though.

It’s also important to understand that these are not the only ways to help a terminally ill person who is in severe pain. End-of-life medication and palliative may offer other options for easing a loved one’s suffering.

A Word From Verywell

Whether or not to help someone die is an overwhelming question to consider. There are also legal issues to think about. And, ultimately, you must decide what is the right thing to do. If you have a loved one who is seriously ill, you should discuss all sides of the issue with them sooner rather than later. This way, you can make the best decisions when it’s time to think about their end-of-life care.

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8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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