Euthanasia and assisted suicide

Euthanasia is the act of deliberately ending a person's life to relieve suffering. Assisted suicide is deliberately assisting or encouraging a person to kill themselves. Both are illegal in England.

Euthanasia is the act of deliberately ending a person's life to relieve suffering.

For example, it could be considered euthanasia if a doctor deliberately gave a patient with a terminal illness an overdose of muscle relaxants to end their life.

Assisted suicide is the act of deliberately assisting or encouraging another person to kill themselves. If a relative of a person with a terminal illness obtained strong sedatives, knowing that the person intended to use the sedatives to kill themselves, they may be considered to be assisting suicide.

The law

Both euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal under English law.

Assisted suicide

Assisted suicide is illegal under the terms of the Suicide Act (1961) and is punishable by up to 14 years' imprisonment. Trying to kill yourself is not a criminal act.

Euthanasia

Depending on the circumstances, euthanasia is regarded as either manslaughter or murder. The maximum penalty is life imprisonment. 

Types of euthanasia

Euthanasia can be classified as:

  • voluntary euthanasia, where a person makes a conscious decision to die and asks for help to do so
  • non-voluntary euthanasia, where a person is unable to give their consent to treatment (for example, because they're in a coma) and another person takes the decision on their behalf, often because the ill person previously expressed a wish for their life to be ended in such circumstances

Active and passive euthanasia

You may have heard the terms "active euthanasia" and "passive euthanasia".

  • "Active euthanasia" is sometimes used to refer to deliberately intervening to end someone's life – for example, by injecting them with a large dose of sedatives.
  • "Passive euthanasia" is sometimes used to refer to causing someone's death by withholding or withdrawing treatment that is necessary to maintain life.

It's important not to confuse "passive euthanasia" with withdrawing life-sustaining treatment in the person's best interests. Withdrawing life-sustaining treatment because it's in the person's best interests can be part of good palliative care and is not euthanasia.

End of life care

If you are approaching the end of life, you have a right to good palliative care – to control pain and other symptoms – as well as psychological, social and spiritual support.

You can find out more about:

Find palliative care services near you.

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