Euthanasia & Physician-Assisted Suicide: A Moral Debate

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will explore the implications of legislative decisions regarding euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. Further, we will evaluate the moral arguments regarding different types of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.


What are the limits to allowing people to make their own decisions about their lives? In the 1990s, Dr. Jack Kervorkian, who was often referred to as 'Dr. Death,' challenged beliefs about euthanasia. Euthanasia is the methodical and intentional termination of life in a patient who has a terminal or incurable disease. People choose to end their lives to avoid the pain and indignity that often accompanies a terminal illness. Dr. Kervorkian developed assisted suicide machines that allowed patients to painlessly transition from life to death, sparking debate about the moral and legal implications of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide that remain controversial today.

The subtle difference between euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide is the degree of involvement of the doctor. With euthanasia, the doctor administers the lethal dose that ends the patient's life. With physician-assisted suicide, the patient takes the lethal dose of medication, which has been provided by the doctor, on their own. Let's examine the euthanasia debate.

Legislative Decisions

Dr. Kervorkian was charged with murder in Michigan in the 1990s. There are now several states that have 'Death with Dignity' laws that enable the terminally ill to make their own end-of-life decisions. In 1997 Oregon was the first state to allow physicians to prescribe lethal doses of medication for terminally ill patients. Since then, Washington and Vermont have adopted similar laws. These states have developed a specific protocol for providing these medications. In 2009, Michigan established legal protection for doctors who write prescriptions for lethal medication at the request of a terminally ill patient.

In 2014, New Mexico courts established a patient's right to receive assistance in death, but this right was challenged and overturned by the New Mexico Supreme Court in June 2016. Washington, D.C., Washington state, California, Colorado, and Vermont have recently passed legislation in support of a patient's right to die. Legislation that would allow patients the right to die is currently pending in 25 other states.

Types of Euthanasia

Ethical arguments vary based on the type of euthanasia that is proposed. Euthanasia can be divided into categories based on who is making the decision to die. It can be voluntary, non-voluntary, or involuntary. Voluntary euthanasia is when the patient makes a request to die. Non-voluntary euthanasia is when a person is incapable of making their own decision because of age or disability, requiring another person to make that choice for them. Involuntary euthanasia is murder as the person wants to live, but their life is terminated against their will.

Further, euthanasia can be categorized by the degree of involvement in terminating life. Active euthanasia is taking deliberate life-ending measures. Passive euthanasia is allowing a person to die by removing or withholding life-saving treatment. For example, removing feeding tubes would be passive euthanasia. Frequently, a living will dictates whether or not life-saving measures will be applied and to what degree.

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