Passive Euthanasia: A Cri de Cœur

Don’t worry: this isn’t another instance of me yammering on about the right to die or the right to induce death.

I’ve recently received a parcel; it contained a copy of this book by Leanne Bell, which happened to fall open at p 204.  On that page, you’ll find this passage:

Active euthanasia involves a deliberate act intended to kill […].  This is illegal in England and Wales because it satisfies the definition of ‘unlawful killing’ and will therefore either be murder or manslaughter depending on the mens rea (that is, the state of mind) of the doctor at the time.  He is likely to face criminal prosecution, regardless of whether the patient and/or the family requested or consented to it.  By contrast, passive euthanasia involves the withholding or withdrawing of treatment from the patient, i.e. an omission rather than an act, and, in certain circumstances, can be legal. [emphasis mine – IB]

No.  Wrong.  Wrong on two fronts.  Withholding treatment may be an omission, but withdrawing it isn’t.  More importantly, while the active/ passive distinction boils down to one between administration and non-administration, it is simply not true that non-administration is the same as passive euthanasia.

Euthanasia requires the intention to end life based on a motive of beneficence directed at the person who will die.  Neither withdrawing nor withholding treatment indicates the intention to end life.  Only if you’re withdrawing or withholding treatment with the intention that this should end life have you committed passive euthanasia.

There’s a simple test you can run here: When withdrawing or withholding treatment, would it be coherent to hope for the patient’s survival – however miraculous – without further intervention?  It would not be coherent in cases of euthanasia, because you can’t intend that life should end and yet hope that it doesn’t.  It could be coherent otherwise.

Or another version of the same test: If you are considering withholding or withdrawing treatment and the patient does not die, would you see this as contrary to your intention?  If yes, you’re considering passive euthanasia; if no, you aren’t.

Bell is by no means alone in getting PE wrong.  The mistake is all over the place – both in the clinical ethics literature, and in the wider public domain.  I’m not wholly sure where it’s come from, but I suspect it may derive from Rachels having made it in”Active and Passive Euthanasia“, and then a little more explicitly in “Killing and Letting Die“:

Many people believe that “passive euthanasia” – allowing terminal patients to die, rather than pointlessly prolonging their lives – is sometimes permissible; but they also believe that killing patients is always wrong.

I’ve got a lot of time for Rachels, and much of what he says on killing and letting die in these essays is good.  But this is wrong.  Even good essays can have wrinkles in them; and this is a big one.  And if it’s the source of the same mistake being made elsewhere, that’s quite serious.

ADDENDUM: Oh, hell – it gets worse.  From p 203:

Voluntary euthanasia involves a mentally competent patient asking the doctor to end their life, whereas involuntary euthanasia refers to a situation where the patient either lacks mental capacity or lacks the physical ability to communicate his wishes due to severe disability or lack of consciousness.

So I looked through the rest of the book.  It’s embarrassingly bad, at least in respect of the ethics.  Another random sample: Futility is, apparently, a school of ethical thought alongside consquentialism and deontology (p 22).  That’s not only philosophically incompetent: believing it requires that one has only the vaguest grasp of English.

How did this get past peer-review?

If you’re considering recommending this book to your students: don’t.  You’ll be doing them a serious disservice.

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