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Definition of Euthanasia

The idea of Euthanasia has been present in society predating our modern history and we continue to argue the justifiability of Euthanasia, yet we haven’t been presented with a widely agreeable definition to the term. In turn the legal, moral and religious approaches vary due to it’s implied meaning and therefore I will begin by looking at how Euthanasia is defined and employ a definition which accounts for the consequences that it presents as well as the act it

defines. To begin with looking at dictionary definitions from sources such as the Oxford Languages Dictionary which defines Euthanasia as “the painless killing of a patient suffering from an incurable and painful disease or in an irreversible coma.”(Oxford Languages and Google - English, 2020) as well as from Merriam Webster’s Dictionary “the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals (such as persons or domestic animals) in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy”(Mazzarella, 1991). Although these definitions are more developed the counterarguments to each of these examples is valid and illustrates the oversimplification of the matter. For example both definitions put emphasis on the idea of suffering and illness which begins to formulate a complete definition, but it then lacks consideration for the motives behind the killing of the individual. If individual A, who administered the agent, caused the death of Individual B and was to gain in any from this death, this definition would still classify this as euthanasia meaning cases such as the Stepping Hill Poisonings carried out by Victorino Chua in 2011 (BBC News, 2015) would be classified as such, which as the Judicial system found is incorrect and implies that this is not a complete definition. (Beauchamp and Davidson, 1979)

Another definition of Euthanasia discusses how it is “either an assisted suicide or a killing by another for humanitarian reasons and by merciful means, generally with the consent of the person killed, in which case it is referred to specifically as voluntary euthanasia” (Macmillan Publishing, 1996). This definition is seemingly satisfactory as it looks at the motive behind the killing, the idea of consent and the mercifulness which we can assume relates to the pain and suffering of the individual. Yet we can also provide a counterargument to this definition as discussing the idea of mercy is highly subjective and therefore can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Alongside which, although there is an explanation of the motive behind the killing, the vaguity of this removes any value in its presence, as “humanitarian reasons” is open to interpretation. But the value of this definition which is also later mentioned by Beuachamp and Davidson, is that for a definition of Euthanasia to be valid it must accomodate the difference between voluntary and involuntary Euthanasia.

This leads us onto the importance of this distinction when discussing Euthanasia, Voluntary Euthanasia can be defined as “when all of the conditions for a valid consent are met: that the patient is competent, fully informed and voluntarily makes a decision to request or agree to euthanasia” (Draper and Slowther, 2008), and is what I will be arguing in my essay, as the breadth of the subject and moral, religious and legal implications become increasingly eclectic and therefore difficult to discuss in any useful detail. A second distinction made in most literature around Euthanasia is the difference between active and passive Euthanasia, Active Euthanasia is described as having “ occurred when the person intending the death took some positive action to ensure this outcome – such as administering a lethal dose of medication.” (Draper and Slowther, 2008). Again this is important to clarify in my definition as Passive Euthanasia, which is defined as “when an action that could have prevented death is not taken (e.g. antibiotics are not given) or an intervention that is keeping death at bay is withdrawn” is heavily debated. Its Classification as Euthanasia being discussed and argued (Rachels, 1975) is not the argument being made in this essay yet is important to literature surrounding Euthanasia.

The nature of Euthanasia is that due to the barriers that exist in language and semantics it is incredibly difficult to accurately define the term, but Beauchamp and Davidson highlighted five key areas of a definition that encompass Euthanasia. The first area is the intention or causation of the death, definitions tend to lean either into ambiguity and failing to mention motive or using highly emotive language such as “killed” (Macmillan Publishing, 1996) which carries connotations of ill-intent meaning a more neutral term should be used such as “causing death”. The second area looks at the suffering of the individual seeking Euthanasia, which again is highly ambiguous but is clarified to state that the individual must irreversibly comatose supported by scientific evidence or acutely suffering or there is evidence to suggest this will occur. B&D then go on to outline the next two areas, reason for death, and painlessness (Beauchamp and Davidson, 1979). This is brought together into a definition, Euthanasia is a case in which the death of individual A is intended by individual B who causes this death through an action or inaction. Individual A was either acutely suffering or irreversibly comatose, or A’s condition was to become this, both of which must be supported by sufficient evidence. The reason for B to cause the death of A is to end the current or predicted suffering and that this death will not cause more suffering to A than without the intervention of B meaning it must be as painless as possible. Although this can also be dissected and counter arguments to this definition can also be made, as mentioned previously the innate complexity of Euthanasia, it’s fundamental relationship with morbidity and the limits of language all make this term near impossible to accurately define. Therefore I feel this definition is one that encompasses the term representatively, assessing each main area of concern in adequate detail and being highly applicable to most cases.

BBC News (2015) Stepping Hill nurse Victorino Chua jailed for life. BBC, 19 May. Available at: (accessed 14 June 2021).

Beauchamp TL and Davidson AI (1979) The definition of euthanasia. The Journal of medicine and philosophy 4(3): 294–312.

Draper H and Slowther A (2008) Euthanasia. Clinical Ethics. DOI: 10.1258/ce.2008.008024.

Macmillan Publishing (1996) The Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Supplement. Macmillan Reference USA, Simon & Schuster Macmillan.

Mazzarella P (1991) Euthanasia: an inclusive definition. The Linacre quarterly 58(4): 56–62.

Oxford Languages and Google - English (2020). Available at: (accessed 14 June 2021).

Rachels J (1975) Active and passive euthanasia. The New England journal of medicine 292(2): 78–80.

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