What Is Euthanasia?

Euthanasia and assisted suicide have important distinctions

Euthanasia is when a doctor gives someone who is dying medication that will end their life.

Some use the terms assisted suicide, physician-assisted death, physician-assisted suicide, and mercy killing as synonyms for euthanasia. But legal and medical experts define these differently.

This article defines euthanasia, explains how it is distinguished from assisted suicide, and explores some of the legal limitations around this practice.

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

What Is 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 assisted suicide is generally defined as follows:

  • The person who wants to commit suicide has asked for help.
  • The person knows that what they are 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.
  • The person who wants to die takes 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 will cause death. But the doctor does not inject the medication or even help the sick person swallow a drug.

How Euthanasia Differs

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. 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.

Where Assisted Suicide Is Allowed

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

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

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 wish to.

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.

Where Euthanasia Is Allowed

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

  • Belgium
  • Canada
  • Colombia
  • Luxembourg
  • The Netherlands

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, not helping them die. The AMA states: “Physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer.”

Is Palliative Sedation Euthanasia?

No, nor is it physician-assisted suicide. 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 or euthanasia.

The AMA says it’s OK 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 as possible when they are in the final stages before death.

Palliative sedation requires:

  • Permission from the person who is sick or whoever is in charge of their healthcare decisions if the patient is unable to understand the situation and give consent
  • A healthcare professional who can administer the drugs

Palliative sedatives are usually given in an IV that goes directly into the bloodstream or as a suppository. A suppository is medication that’s inserted into your rectum where it dissolves into the body.

Because the medication is fast-acting, sedatives must be given by a physician, nurse, or other healthcare professional.

People do sometimes die while under heavy sedation, but that is not the goal of the treatment. In these cases, it may not be clear whether someone died because of the medication or the illness.

Recap

Palliative sedation is not meant to end someone's life, but to heavily sedate them so they feel little to no pain in the time before they die naturally. Unlike assisted suicide and euthanasia, this practice is supported by the American Medical Association.

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 then use to take their own life.

The arguments for or against ending a person’s life are never neat and clear, and there are many opinions for and against these practices.

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.

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.

Was this page helpful?
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.
  1. De Lima L, Woodruff R, Pettus K, et al. International Association for Hospice and Palliative Care position statement: euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. J Palliat Med. 2017;20(1):8-14. doi:10.1089/jpm.2016.0290

  2. Goligher EC, Ely EW, Sulmasy DP, et al. Physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia in the ICU: a dialogue on core ethical issues. Crit Care Med. 2017;45(2):149-155. doi:10.1097/CCM.0000000000001818

  3. ProCon.org. States with legal physician-assisted suicide. Updated February 18, 2020.

  4. Gallup. Americans' strong support for euthanasia persists. Published May 31, 2018.

  5. ProCon.org. Euthanasia & physician-assisted suicide (PAS) around the world. Updated December 3, 2020.

  6. American Medical Association. Physician-assisted suicide.

  7. American Medical Association. Sedation to unconsciousness in end-of-life care.

  8. Erdek M. Pain medicine and palliative care as an alternative to euthanasia in end-of-life cancer care. Linacre Q. 2015;82(2):128-34. doi:10.1179/2050854915Y.0000000003