Euthanasia is a controversial subject and many people will question what is euthanasia? The term euthanasia refers to ending someone’s life usually because they have a terminal illness or they are suffering and relates specifically to an individual who is suffering and in significant pain and discomfort as a result of a disease or illness and ending their life is seen as the best course of action.
If a doctor administered an overdose of a muscle relaxant to a patient with terminal cancer this would be classed as euthanasia. Assisted suicide on the other hand is where an individual deliberately assists another to end their life. If the relative of an individual with a terminal illness obtains a powerful sedative knowing that their family member intended to use them to end their live, they would be considered to have assisted the suicide.
Euthanasia and The Law
In the English legal system, both assisted suicide and active euthanasia are illegal. Depending on the circumstances of the case, euthanasia is deemed to be either murder or manslaughter. If guilty of either offence, the offender could face criminal punishment with a maximum penalty of life in prison.
In accordance with the Suicide Act (1961), assisted suicide is against the law and carries with it a term of up to 14 years in prison. Attempting to take your own life is not a criminal offence.
What is Euthanasia? Different Types
Euthanasia can be either active or passive;
- Active Euthanasia – Where an individual will deliberately help to end someone’s life such as injecting them with a significant does of sedatives
- Passive Euthanasia – Where an individual causes the death of another by withdrawing or stopping treatment which is necessary to maintain life.
Euthanasia can also be classified in several ways such as;
- Voluntary – Where an individual reaches the decision that they wish to die and they ask for assistance to do this
- Non-Voluntary – Where an individual cannot provide their consent because they either have severe brain damage or they are in a coma and another person makes the decision on their behalf because the individual had previously expressed a wish for their life to be ended if the current situation arose
- Involuntary – Where an individual is killed against their wishes
Voluntary and non-voluntary euthanasia, depending on the circumstances could be deemed as either voluntary manslaughter or murder.
Involuntary euthanasia would always be classed as murder in the eyes of the law
End of life care
When a person nears the end of their life, they are entitled to what is known as palliative care which is a method of care that aims to alleviate their pain and control other symptoms that they may have. End of life care will also provide the required support in terms of psychological, spiritual and social assistance. A patient at this stage has a full entitlement to be involved in decisions about their treatment.
In the English legal system, all adults have a right to refuse medical treatment provided that they have sufficient capacity to understand and use the information they have been given to reach an informed decision.
If a patient currently has capacity to make decisions for themselves but they know that their capability to make decisions may change in the future, they can arrange for an Advance Directive to be drawn up which is a legally binding decision made in advance.
An Advance Directive will outline the treatments and procedures that you wish to receive and which you do not. As a result, healthcare teams who are delivering your care and treatment cannot carry out certain procedures and/or treatments against your wishes.
UK Law and Euthanasia
If an individual is intentionally killed in the UK irrespective of whether it was on their request is a criminal offence and is dealt with as either manslaughter or murder and in particular situations carries a life sentence in prison.
The Suicide Act 1961
The Suicide Act of 1961 decriminalised suicide throughout England and Wales meaning that it was no longer an offence to take your own life. The Act went further and outlined the offence of assisted suicide. Under Section 21 of the Act it makes it a criminal offence for an individual to counsel, procure, aid or abet the suicide of another person or assist another to commit suicide.
Sentencing for Euthanasia
If an individual has assisted another end their life and they are convicted, they can face up to 14 years in prison if convicted under Section 21 of the Suicide Act 1961.
A jury would be very reluctant to convict someone who is being tried for assisted suicide because in the majority of cases it involves relatives who are grieving and they genuinely believed that the action they took was in the best interest of their family member.
In the UK there haven’t been any doctors convicted of assisted suicide even though many claim to assist with suicide.
Euthanasia and Human Rights
When the Human Rights Act 1998 was introduced, many campaigners have stated that denying someone the right to end their suffering and pain which is unbearable is inhuman and degrading. This treatment is prohibited by Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights and is also thought to be a violation of family life and privacy which is also protected through Article 8 of the Convention.
Arguments have also been made in UK law which indicate that outlawing euthanasia violates the right of an individual to die if they wish to do so.
Although the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act recognise a right to life, it currently does not recognise the right to death.
There has been considerable debate surrounding euthanasia in Parliament and society in general regarding assisted suicide but at the present time there have been no changes in the law.
In certain countries, Euthanasia is legal. Countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands legalised it in 2002.
In Switzerland only assisted suicide is permitted by medical professionals and doctors but Euthanasia itself is still illegal.
When exploring what is euthanasia, the law is very clear in the UK that any form of euthanasia or assisted suicide is against the law and carries with it lengthy custodial sentences.
About the author:
This article was written by a member of the Expert Answers legal advice team. Expert Answers provides online legal advice on all aspects of UK Law to users in the United Kingdom.