The term euthanasia means, literally, ‘a good death’ or ‘death without suffering’. It is used to describe the mercy killing by a medical practitioner of an incurably ill patient and it implies the administration of a drug deliberately and specifically to precipitate or accelerate death.
Euthanasia can be either voluntary or involuntary (ie, compulsory). In no country is either form legal, though there is de facto acceptance of voluntary euthanasia in Holland.
Voluntary euthasia requested by the sufferer, has also been described as Assisted Suicide or Homicide By Request. Involuntary euthanasia implies a decision by society (or by an individual) to end the life of a sufferer who cannot signify volition; for example, the severely handicapped infant or the demented.
Discussion relating to euthanasia has been complicated by the use of the term Passive Euthanasia. This is defined as withholding treatment that might lengthen the lives of the incurably sick. However, as it does not involve the deliberate administration of a drug to accelerate death, it should not be described as euthanasia. The use of the term derives from a failure to distinguish between acute and terminal illness. The two are distinct concepts, and what is appropriate for one may be inappropriate for the other. For example, intravenous infusions, antibiotics, respirators and cardiac resuscitation are all supportive measures for use in acute or recurrent illnesses to assist a patient through a critical period towards recovery. Generally, to use these measures in the terminally ill, with no expectation of a return to health, is inappropriate and, therefore, bad medicine. A doctor clearly has a duty to sustain life where life is sustainable; he has no duty – legal or ethical – to prolong the distress of a dying patient.
The term Indirect Euthanasia has been used to describe the administration of morphine to cancer patients in pain. This is incorrect; giving a drug to lessen pain cannot be equated with giving an overdose deliberately to end life. Should life be marginally shortened by the use of morphine or related drugs, this is an acceptable risk in the circumstances. Correctly used, however, such drugs are much safer than commonly supposed. There is circumstantial evidence that those whose pain is relieved may outlive those whose nutrition and rest continue to be disturbed by persistent pain.
(Based on an extract from The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought)