Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Active Euthanasia Definition:

The taking of active measures to cut short the life of a terminally ill patient.

Related Terms: Passive Euthanasia, Assisted Suicide, Euthanasia

In the Supreme Court of Canada, Rodriguez v British Columbia, Justice John Sopinka used these words (citing the 1993 English case, Airedale Trust v. Bland):

"[T]hough the principle of sanctity of life is not an absolute one, it forbids the taking of active measures to cut short the life of a terminally ill patient....

"[P]assive euthanasia may be lawful, either because the doctor is giving effect to his patient's wishes by withholding the treatment or care, or even in certain circumstances in which ... the patient is incapacitated from stating whether or not he gives his consent. But it is not lawful for a doctor to administer a drug to his patient to bring about his death, even though that course is prompted by a humanitarian desire to end his suffering, however great that suffering may be...."

According to the West Encyclopedia of American Law, active euthanasia is described as:

"... causing the death of a person through a direct action in response to a request from that person....

"In many jurisdictions, active euthanasia can be considered murder or manslaughter...."

But this is an error in that active euthanasia stands if the action is taken regardless as to a "request from" the patient.

In the same Canadian case of Rodriguez, Justice Hollinrake of the British Columbia Court of Appeal had used these words at ¶131-133:

"In a 1988 report on euthanasia (by the Council of Ethical and Judicial Affairs of the American Medical Association), active euthanasia is described as death caused by an intentional act while passive euthanasia is described as the withdrawal of life support systems.  The Council said what is termed active euthanasia is a euphemism for the intentional killing of a person.  The Council said withdrawing medical treatment where the intent is to relieve pain is acceptable medical practice, while mercy killing is not.

"In a 1991 report, Decisions Near the End of Life, the Council ... opposed the separate category of physician assisted suicides: 'while in highly sympathetic cases physician-assisted suicide may seem appropriate, due to the likelihood of grave harm, the medical profession cannot condone physician-assisted suicide at this time."

"The World Medical Association (WMA) has also come out strongly against physicians assisting in the deaths of their patients.  In a September 1992 statement, the WMA called physician assisted suicides unethical.  The WMA recognized though the right of a patient to decline medical treatment and that doctors who respect that wish do not act unethically.

"In summary, the Canadian Medical Association, the British Medical Association, the American Medical Association and the World Medical Association all condemn the practice of active euthanasia and physician assisted suicide.  However, the medical practice of withdrawing treatment to alleviate pain is acceptable by the profession.  The rationale behind the drawing of this distinction seems to be one based on intent; the withdrawing of treatment is to lessen suffering, which is consistent with the Hippocratic oath, while active euthanasia, by the physician or by the patient with the doctor's assistance, is to cause death, which runs against the fundamental intuition of medical training."

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