Euthanasia and assisted suicide 

Introduction 

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. 

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.

Page last reviewed: 11/08/2014

Next review due: 11/08/2016

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Comments

The 13 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

carl1983 said on 30 July 2014

Welcome to the 21st century. We need to legalize this as an act of kindness to those who are in much pain and suffering. I'm now sat next to my mum who has a rare cancer, the cancer it's self is spreading faster than anyone could imagine. The pain is horrific, she can not eat due to a large tumour in her mouth and one side her face has been completely eaten by the large amount of cancerous sells. She is not religious in any way and she would like to end her life now, rather than prolonging this torture. I have even giving it the thought of spending the next 14 years behind bars to end the suffering my mum has to go thou on a day to day basis. If there was a God, we wouldn't be in this predicament in the first place. No one or being on this planet would make someone surffer like this, but yet if it was my dog, I could have him put down and God would be happy with that??? I totally agree that no staff should be forced to end someone's life but I would be more than willing to help my mum. P.s a Big thank you, to the nurses who have tried to help my mum to be comfortable. SAY YES...

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MalvernJonesy said on 15 July 2014

This is a subject that is currently in the news and which I have been thinking about for some time for very personal reasons, and following my mum’s death I wrote and acted in a short film inspired by her called Rhubarb And Roses. I spent eight months watching her die of lung-cancer, and so it's my informed contribution to the debate on euthanasia for people with terminal illness and in acute pain. The director lent a sympathetic touch as his father too had recently died of cancer. It was a challenge to make a short film of life’s final taboo and to do it with dignity. But I think it’s both funny and moving, and that was how my mom was right up to the end.

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d4r said on 17 April 2013

The reason euthanasia isn’t legal in the UK has nothing to do with pandering to religious beliefs or safe-guarding the mentally ill.

Those issues could be ignored and legislated for respectively without raising any problems at all for the UK Government.

The reality is that in addition to ending intolerable painful suffering caused by illness there are many other valid reasons why a rational person would want to end their life.

There are for example millions of people in the UK permanently trapped with no hope of escape in terrible suffering caused by poverty. They quite rationally realise that their entire lives will be spent in an existence not worth enduring. There are of course many other quality of life factors which are equally valid for wanting to end your life.

If however everyone with a perfectly valid reason for wanting to end their life did so in a legally documented procedure, that data would be used politically as an indictment on the UK government’s ability to rule and create a country worth living in.

No UK politician has the guts to allow hard evidence to exist of their uselessness or the terrible consequences of their actions.

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Number6 said on 24 March 2013

The main problem with this country and the people who govern us are still steeped in medieval & Dickensian traditions.
They want to keep us in those old regimes as anything else will seem as a threat to their very existence.

Of course if we had 4 legs then this would not be an issue. But over zealous religous leaders & politicians must be seen to be doing the correct thing even when we know it is wrong.
Dying with dignity in this country is a total myth
The main problem with this country is leaders spend far too much time looking at the past rather than embracing the future thus keeping us in that sphere.

Wake up backward looking Britain.

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Rozuko said on 01 February 2013

The overwhelming majority of citizens want this legalised to create a more humane society and not still entrapped in the bounds of our religious inspired medical practises.

I have religious and non-religious friends, all of whom support this massively, Atheists/Christians/Muslims alike. It is absolutely appalling that the government does not listen to the people. They are anti personal freedom and pro suffering.

26 bishops sit in the house of lords, this is one main obstacle, which is ridiculous in itself, we're still bound by the influence of religion. Religion is perfectly fine in a personal private(includes celebrations) personal way, it has no place in government and in laws.

We have this absurd fear of death in our society and we just pretend that it doesn't happen and just brush it under the carpet. Fear of death is a very natural occurrence, that is no reason to try and force everyone to live as long as possible, no matter how much suffering and misery you are experiencing.

I can't respect someone as a humane and decent human being if they don't support bodily autonomy, personal freedom & individual choice. I don't tell you how to run your life, don't tell everyone else how to run theirs.

I can state with pride that if a loved one had come to me and asked me to help them go ease-fully and peacefully with the respect that they deserve, I would help them despite of risk of a murder or assisted suicide charge, I am not an animal, the opponents are.

The government think we are idiotic animals and thy see us as their property. In reality we have more brain cells than they do, we have more heart and character then they ever will.

Don't lose hope my friends, they will fight to continue these draconian laws, a forced life sentence of misery. They will fight, and they will fall. Their laws are disgraceful and tribal.

Justice will prevail. May the hour come when we respect other people choices about their own bodies.

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ChrisProbst said on 11 January 2013

Passive euthenasia is just wilful neglect really...if the person goes into hospital, its with the expectation of being treated, and people going hell for leather to help you....if the person doesnt consent to the liverpool care pathway, I dont see how on earth its legal...there is something really spooky about seeing this on an NHS health website - rather uncomfortable that once youre unconcious, a doctor can act in your 'best interests' and take all your drugs away....these younger medics are not always as benevolent as they used to be. I dont like the idea that they could make a decision that it was in my best interests to die. Thats up to me...

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gina at choices said on 17 December 2012

one problem is as always that what a person wants is folowed. one problem i get with an illness that ive always
had is that if i was seriously ill i dont reallly want to bother
anymore and arguments of this that or care of this or that
are irrelevent. i mean i dont want to die like a dog in pain
but im not interested in prolonging the situation or suffering
in a seriously ill state iff i ever was. it might sound like die young stay pretty and it is a bit, but thats what it feels like
and if ive got to stay alive like some things i could think of i dont want to. its a bit dark i suppose, but true, its the old argument of quality vs quantity. does that help ?

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Jemima Khant said on 07 December 2012

Why is this here? Is euthenasia or assisted dying available on the NHS ?

Two of the definitions are compatible with the Liverpool Care Pathway...why is that?

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anonymousdude said on 27 November 2012

Democracy? What democracy? We want it legalized. Ask the overwhelming majority out there.

Legalized & for everyone. My mum is getting old & when she passes I'm going with her.

What if I just dislike life? What if I just think the world is evil? What if I never asked to be born?

Some people just want to die & we want an honorable way to go

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anonymousdude said on 27 November 2012

Euthanasia should be legalized & for everyone. Why is it such a taboo anyway? None of us asked to be born.

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User688257 said on 20 June 2012

hello i thinks its really really really badd!

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ProEuti said on 13 June 2012

euthanasia is illegal, yes. but the slogan for the nhs is your health your choices, do we really have a choice? No we dont becauase euthanasia is illegal. okay so passive euthanasia is legal but i and many others consider this to be more brutal and painfuln then illegal voluntary euthanasia.

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Sba 77 said on 05 June 2012

This is a taboo subject but it really should and needs to be legalised, it would cut a lot of problems. Maybe i would do it cause I dont think I have the guts to top myself. If it did get legalized the rules would have to be more lenient, anyone who doesnt want to live anymore regardless of their sex, age etc should be granted it even if they are perfectly healthy and it should be free, I don't have to tell you the appalling treatment the elderly have been getting and this would solve the problem, although it is sad but when you've got severe alzheimers or whatever, who wouldn't wanna be 10ft under? It'd be used by so many people it's crazy and a nicer way to go. It would benefit so many people, especially in the year 2012.

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What is end of life care?

Find out what is involved in end of life and palliative care, plus where you can get it, and coping financially

Starting the conversation

Find out ideas for how and when to start talking about your illness and death, and which words you might want to use