n South African Medical Journal - Palliative care : definition of euthanasia : correspondence

Volume 104, Issue 4
  • ISSN : 0256-9574
  • E-ISSN: 2078-5135



Euthanasia is defined as 'conduct that brings about an easy and painless death for persons suffering from an incurable or painful disease or condition'. Active euthanasia is the intentional killing of a person suffering from an incurable disease, and fulfils the legal criteria for murder. There is intent, causation, a human is the victim, and the act, whether by omission or commission, is unlawful. Motive, albeit the altruistic desire to relieve unnecessary suffering in the face of futility, is irrelevant to criminal intent. The term passive euthanasia includes withholding extreme medical measures or removing life support in the presence of futile or non-beneficial treatment. McQuoid-Mason outlines the reason why, in the eyes of the law, passive euthanasia is not a criminal offence, and withholding or withdrawing life-sustaining treatment or administering sufficient analgesia and sedation during the latter cannot be construed as murder. Of the four legal prerequisites for the definition of murder, namely intent, causation, a human victim and contravention of the law, only the last-mentioned is not fulfilled and spares the doctor from a conviction. Although reassuring to those working in critical care, where withholding or withdrawing support is a fact of life (or death), the fact that only one component of the legal definition spares us from being labelled criminals is somewhat disconcerting. We would argue that in addition to the lack of unlawfulness, neither intent nor causation applies, and furthermore that the term 'passive euthanasia' is an oxymoron and should be abandoned.

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