Introduction 

Euthanasia is the act of deliberately ending a person's life to relieve suffering.

For example, a doctor who gives a patient with terminal cancer an overdose of muscle relaxants to end their life would be considered to have carried out euthanasia.

Assisted suicide is the act of deliberately assisting or encouraging another person to kill themselves.

If a relative of a person with a terminal illness were to obtain powerful sedatives, knowing that the person intended to take an overdose of sedatives to kill themselves, they may be considered to be assisting suicide.

Legal position

Both euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal under English law.

Depending on the circumstances, euthanasia is regarded as either manslaughter or murder and is punishable by law, with a maximum penalty of up to life imprisonment. 

Assisted suicide is illegal under the terms of the Suicide Act (1961) and is punishable by up to 14 years' imprisonment. Attempting to kill yourself is not a criminal act in itself. 

Types of euthanasia

Euthanasia can be classified in different ways, including:

  • active euthanasia  where a person deliberately intervenes to end someone’s life – for example, by injecting them with a large dose of sedatives  
  • passive euthanasia  where a person causes death by withholding or withdrawing treatment that is necessary to maintain life, such as withholding antibiotics from someone with pneumonia  

Euthanasia can also be classified as:

  • voluntary euthanasia  where a person makes a conscious decision to die and asks for help to do this
  • non-voluntary euthanasia  where a person is unable to give their consent (for example, because they are in a coma or are severely brain damaged) and another person takes the decision on their behalf, often because the ill person previously expressed a wish for their life to be ended in such circumstances
  • involuntary euthanasia  where a person is killed against their expressed wishes

Depending on the circumstances, voluntary and non-voluntary euthanasia could be regarded as either voluntary manslaughter (where someone kills another person, but circumstances can partly justify their actions) or murder. 

Involuntary euthanasia is almost always regarded as murder.

There are arguments used by both supporters and opponents of euthanasia and assisted suicide. Read more about the arguments for and against euthanasia and assisted suicide.

End of life care

If you are approaching the end of life, you have a right to good palliative care – to control pain and other symptoms – as well as psychological, social and spiritual support.

You're also entitled to have a say in the treatments you receive at this stage.

For example, under English law, all adults have the right to refuse medical treatment, as long as they have sufficient capacity (the ability to use and understand information to make a decision).

If you know that your capacity to consent may be affected in the future, you can arrange a legally binding advance decision (previously known as an advance directive).

An advance decision sets out the procedures and treatments that you consent to and those that you do not consent to. This means that the healthcare professionals treating you cannot perform certain procedures or treatments against your wishes.

Read more about your rights when approaching the end of life.

Other countries

Active euthanasia is currently only legal in Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg. Under the laws in these countries, a person’s life can be deliberately ended by their doctor or other healthcare professional.

The person is usually given an overdose of muscle relaxants or sedatives. This causes a coma and then death.

However, euthanasia is only legal if the following three criteria are met:

  • The person has made an active and voluntary request to end their life.
  • It is thought that they have sufficient mental capacity to make an informed decision regarding their care.
  • It is agreed that the person is suffering unbearably and there is no prospect for an improvement in their condition.

Capacity is the ability to use and understand information to make a decision. Read more about the capacity to consent to treatment.

In some countries the law is less clear, with some forms of assisted suicide and passive euthanasia legal, but active euthanasia illegal.

For example, some types of assisted suicide and passive euthanasia are legal in Switzerland, Germany, Mexico and five American states. 

Page last reviewed: 11/08/2014

Next review due: 11/08/2016