Human Interest


Doctors Accused of ‘Euthanasia by Other Means’

March 25, 2008 02:29 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Terminal sedation, in which powerful painkillers render patients unconscious until they die, can ease a patient’s suffering. Critics say the practice can amount to euthanasia.

30-Second Summary

A recent study concluded that a growing number of physicians are using terminal sedation during end-of-life care, Time magazine reports.

In hospitals worldwide, doctors will sometimes choose to keep dying patients unconscious when their suffering cannot be relieved in any other way. But the study questions the ethics of such practices.

The study compared treatment data for terminally ill patients from 2001 and 2005 in the Netherlands, where physician-assisted suicide is legal but highly regulated. It found a decrease in physician-assisted suicides, but a corresponding increase in the rates of heavy sedation prior to death.

Researchers concluded that the use of “continuous deep sedation” may be increasing “as a relevant alternative to euthanasia.” They added that the study didn’t determine whether it is used “in accordance with legal and professional guidelines.”

There is also debate among American physicians about the so-called “double effect,” in which the amount of medication necessary to relieve pain also hastens death, as PBS reports. Many doctors say such medication is ethical if done “to relieve suffering only, not to cause death.”

Christian bioethics experts differ in their views, and most doctors approve of the practice if done with safeguards to determine patients’ and families’ wishes.

However, it appears difficult for even the most qualified doctor to determine where sedation ends, and euthanasia begins.

A Louisiana nursing home doctor who heavily medicated suffering patients during Hurricane Katrina, and was accused of causing their deaths, was unsuccessfully prosecuted for murder.

In other recent cases, patients have claimed a right to palliative care and even assisted suicide.

Headline Links: Study finds increased medical use of terminal sedation

Background: Medical use of palliative treatments and terminal sedation

Opinion & Analysis: Religious and legal perspectives on terminal sedation

Related Topics: The law, ethics and patients’ rights to palliative treatment and assisted suicide

Reference: Resources and information on palliative care and facing terminal illness


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