Euthanasia Terminology

"Euthanasia" means any action undertaken for the direct purpose of ending another person's life (i.e. deliberately causing someone elses death). In other words, euthanasia is the killing of one person by another person.

  • Passive euthanasia is the withdrawing or withholding of live-giving means of support.
  • Active euthanasia causes the death of a person by a deliberate action.
  • Physician-assisted suicide is where a doctors provides the means for a person to kill themselves.
  • Voluntary euthanasia is when a person is killed at his or her own request.
  • Involuntary euthanasia is where a person is killed without his or her consent.
  • Natural death occurs when there has been no intentional act to deliberately cause the death of the patient.
The word Euthanasia originated from the Greek language: eu means "good" and thanatos means "death" was first used in 1606. One meaning given to the word is "the intentional termination of life by another at the explicit request of the person who dies."

The term euthanasia normally implies that the act must be initiated by the person who wishes to commit suicide. However, some people define euthanasia to include both voluntary and involuntary termination of life. Like so many moral/ethical/religious terms, "euthanasia" has many meanings. The result is mass confusion. 1

It is important to differentiate among a number of vaguely related terms:

Passive Euthanasia: Hastening the death of a person by altering some form of support and letting nature take its course.

For example:
  • Removing life support equipment (e.g. turning off a respirator)

  • Stopping medical procedures, medications etc.

  • Stopping food and water and allowing the person to dehydrate or starve to death.

  • Not delivering CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation) and allowing a person, whose heart has stopped, to die.
Active Euthanasia: This involves causing the death of a person through a direct action, in response to a request from that person. A well known example was the mercy killing in 1998 of a patient with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) by Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a Michigan physician. His patient was frightened that the advancing disease would cause him to die a horrible death in the near future; he wanted a quick, painless exit from life. Dr. Kevorkian injected controlled substances into the patient, thus causing his death. Charged with 1st degree murder, the jury found him guilty of 2nd degree murder in 1999-MAR.

Physician Assisted Suicide: A physician supplies information and/or the means of committing suicide (e.g. a prescription for lethal dose of sleeping pills, or a supply of carbon monoxide gas) to a person, so that they can easily terminate their own life. The term "voluntary passive euthanasia" (VPE) is becoming commonly used.

Voluntary Euthanasia: This is when the patient is willing or has initiated the requed to be put to death.

Involuntary Euthanasia:This term is used by some to describe the killing of a person who has not explicitly requested aid in dying. This is most often done to patients who are in a Persistent Vegetative State and will probably never recover consciousness.

Natural Death: Where a person dies naturally without heroic life lengthening treatment that would not appreciably lengthen the life of the patient and may cause pain or distress. A natural death applies even if medication hastens death, if the intention was to relieve suffering but not to deliberately and intentionally cause the death of the patient.

Word Games
Wesley J. Smith, an attorney for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, catalogues the changes in terminology and the way the various euthanasia activists have changed the name of their organisations in order "to convince people to support legalizing mercy killing."
"When 'euthanasia' didn't arouse people to march in the streets demanding a right to be killed if they get cancer, activists began using the terms 'deliverance' and, more recently, 'physician-assisted suicide to assure a wary public that they would only be dispatched upon request. But apparently these terms don't poll well, especially any term containing the word 'suicide'. So, activists dropped 'assisted suicide' and replaced it with the currently favored euphemism, 'aid-in-dying'.

For the same reasons, the names of mercy-killing advocacy organizations have changed over the years. Thus, what began as the Euthanasia Society of America in the 1930s, morphed in 1976 into the Society for the Right to Die, on its way in 1991 to becoming Choice in Dying (now defunct). The aptly called Hemlock Society meanwhile, decided that being named after a lethal poison was too candid and descriptive. So earlier this year it changed its handle to End of Life Choices, apparently on the theory that people reflexively react to the word 'choice' in the way Pavlov's dogs did, to the ringing bell.

And now, before the ink on End of Life Choices's newly ordered stationary is even dry, it is merging with Compassion in Dying (CID). Compassion in Dying was originally a creature of Hemlock intended to facilitate assisted suicides. But it soon outgrew that role to become a key player in the passage of Oregon's assisted-suicide law, catapulting it to national prominence.

The new blended organization is to be called Compassion and Choice."
Compassion and Choice, it is noted, has introduced an advocacy slogan, "Dignity-Compassion-Control."

In their own words...
Smith would appear to be borne out in his claim as the following statement bears witness. Jean Davis, President of the World Federation of the Right to Die Societies said:
"If we now return to the semantics of voluntary euthanasia let us try replacing 'kill' by 'help to die'. When we do this, many of the most emotive objections, to its legalization, fade away." 2
We have an example of this 'evolution' in name change in New Zealand, where pro-euthanasia activist Leslie Martin announced in 2005 that her organisation Exit New Zealand had changed its name to Dignity New Zealand.

1 Definition of Euthanasia by the Netherlands State Commission on Euthanasia
2 LAST RIGHTS #6, Oct/Nov.:13