The term euthanasia originally meant only ‘good death,’ but in more recent times it is defined as the act of a third party, usually a doctor, ending a person’s life in response to severe pain or suffering. Euthanasia can be voluntary—meaning the doctor has obtained the person’s informed consent, or involuntary, without the knowledge or consent of the person.
There are different types of euthanasia –
- Active euthanasia is when the death of a person is brought about by ‘the act’ of another person. In active euthanasia a person directly and deliberately causes the patient’s death eg when a person dies by being given an overdose of pain-killers.
- Passive euthanasia is when death is brought about by an ‘omission’. In passive euthanasia they don’t directly take the patient’s life, they just allow them to die by withdrawing or withholding treatment, and they are aware that the result of their inaction will be the death of the patient. An example of withdrawing treatment is switching off a machine that is keeping a person alive. An example of withholding treatment is not carrying out surgery that will extend life for a short time.
- Voluntary euthanasia occurs with the terminally ill person’s informed consent. Voluntary euthanasia is not legal in most parts of the world. As of October 2015, human euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, Colombia and Luxembourg. Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, Germany, Japan, Albania, Canada, and in the United States of Washington, Oregon, Vermont, New Mexico, Montana and California (effective January 1, 2016).
- Involuntary euthanasia occurs when the person is unconscious or otherwise unable (for example, a baby) to make an informed decision between living and dying, and an appropriate person makes the decision on their behalf. It also includes cases where the person is a child who is mentally and emotionally able to make the decision, but who is not regarded in law as having reached an adequately mature age to make such a decision, so an appropriate person must take it on their behalf in the eyes of the law.
- Assisted Suicide usually refers to cases where the person who is going to die needs help to end their life, and requests assistance to carry out the act. The term is often used interchangeably with physician-assisted suicide, which involves a doctor knowingly and intentionally providing a person with the knowledge or means, or both, required to commit suicide. It can also be something as simple as another person obtaining drugs for the person and putting those drugs within their reach. Assisted suicide and euthanasia are sometimes combined under the umbrella term ‘assisted dying’.