Formerly called ‘mercy killing’, euthanasia means to facilitate someone else’s death intentionally but also compassionately. It differs from assisted suicide in that euthanasia involves the other person performing some direct act to kill an individual. Euthanasia is illegal in Britain, but overseas, steps have been taken towards its legalization in The Netherlands, the US state of Oregon and the Australian Northern Territory. Debates over the ethics of euthanasia involve questions concerning a doctor’s Hippocratic oath, parallels with abortion and suicide, religious beliefs, uncertainties over the motives of relatives, and the individual’s right to an easy, painless death.
   Advocates of euthanasia (from the Greek for ‘good death’) insist that the individual is entitled to opt for death as a release from suffering and undignified incapacity when medical science offers no hopes of restoration to health and predicts nothing better than more or less rapid terminal decline. While still capable of taking rational decisions, people are urged to contemplate the prospect of final illnesses, which, thanks to modern medicine, are becoming ever more protracted, often with a final phase of more or less vegetative helplessness, and to draw up ‘living wills’ directing their doctors to terminate their life once the point of no return is reached. Euthanasia is distinguished from suicide as coming only towards the very end of normal life and as being totally rational, not the action of one whose mind is unbalanced.
   Orthodox religion condemns euthanasia as the unwarrantable curtailment of God-given life. The law does not accept euthanasia either. It denies the validity of ‘living wills’ and threatens with severe penalties (that are, however, rarely inflicted) those who assist their fellows in terminat-ing their life, even when acting only on an explicit, formally recorded request. Fine distinctions are drawn, however, between euthanasia, interpreted as taking definite action to bring about death, and ‘allowing nature to take its course’, for instance, by switching off a life support system when it is recognized that the patient has no chance of recovery. Likewise, it appears generally accepted that there is justification in refraining from ‘heroic endeavours’: that is, taking extraordinary steps that might, because they cause further suffering for the individual or require an extravagant commitment of medical resources, be regarded as quite disproportionate to any potential prolongation of a life that has by the time lost any quality making it worthwhile for the dying person, to the greater distress of her or his loved ones. Though hard evidence is not readily available, it seems that nowadays in Britain doctors are increasingly considered right in their unwillingness to allow their terminally ill patients to suffer unduly, even if, for example, prescribing larger doses of painkillers is likely to result in death somewhat sooner than might otherwise be the case. The euthanasia movement commands considerable support and will probably make further headway as Britain becomes an increasingly secularized society.
   See also: Abortion Acts
   Further reading
    Keown, J. (1995) Euthanasia Examined: Legal, Ethical and Clinical Perspectives, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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