Euthanasia is the act of deliberately ending a person's life to relieve suffering.
For example, it could be considered euthanasia if a doctor deliberately gave a patient with a terminal illness drugs they do not otherwise need for their comfort, such as an overdose of sedatives or muscle relaxant, with the sole aim of ending their life.
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 obtained strong sedatives, knowing that the person intended to use the sedatives to kill themselves, they may be considered to be assisting suicide.
Both euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal under English law.
Assisted suicide is illegal under the terms of the Suicide Act (1961) and is punishable by up to 14 years' imprisonment. Trying to kill yourself is not a criminal act.
Depending on the circumstances, euthanasia is regarded as either manslaughter or murder. The maximum penalty is life imprisonment.
Types of euthanasia
Euthanasia can be classified as:
- voluntary euthanasia, where a person makes a conscious decision to die and asks for help to do so
- non-voluntary euthanasia, where a person is unable to give their consent to treatment (for example, because they're in a coma) 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
Active and passive euthanasia
You may have heard the terms "active euthanasia" and "passive euthanasia".
"Active euthanasia" is sometimes used to refer to deliberately intervening to end someone's life – for example, by injecting them with a large dose of sedatives.
"Passive euthanasia" is sometimes used to refer to causing someone's death by withholding or withdrawing treatment that is necessary to maintain life.
It's important not to confuse "passive euthanasia" with withdrawing life-sustaining treatment in the person's best interests. Withdrawing life-sustaining treatment because it's in the person's best interests can be part of good palliative care and is not euthanasia.
End of life care
If you are approaching the end of your life, you have a right to good palliative care – to control pain and other symptoms – as well as psychological, social and spiritual support.
You can find out more about:
- where you can receive your care, including in a hospice
- coping with a terminal diagnosis
- ways to start talking about the fact you are dying
- managing pain and other symptoms
- coping financially and benefits entitlement
- making a legally binding advance decision to refuse treatment
- creating a lasting power of attorney so someone you trust can make decisions for you if you can't make them in the future
- why it can help to plan ahead for your future care
Page last reviewed: 29 June 2017
Next review due: 29 June 2020