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Euthanasia and assisted suicide

Euthanasia is defined as the deliberate ending of a person's life to stop their extreme pain or suffering, perhaps from an incurable condition or when in a coma that cannot be reversed. Euthanasia is illegal under UK law and is considered to be manslaughter or murder.

An example of euthanasia would be giving a person an overdose of medication knowing this would kill them. Euthanasia is different from stopping a treatment, or not starting a treatment to keep someone alive, for example if the person has made a 'do not resuscitate' request.

A related topic is assisted suicide, where a person helps or encourages another person to kill themselves. An example of this might be a relative being asked to obtain a lethal dose of drugs to end the life of someone who no longer wishes to live with an incurable condition.

'Right to die' cases, including those of a man with locked-in syndrome called Tony Nicklinson, have been heard in the country's highest courts, but while judges have referred to the "terrible predicament" of those involved, they have ruled that it was up to Parliament to change the law.

The topic continues to be hotly debated with significant moral and ethical considerations. On one side can be the wishes of a person who feels their quality of life is too low to want to continue to live, and they believe they have the mental capacity to make that decision. On the other side of the argument are those concerned of the risk of some people with disabilities being pressurised to end their lives.

Euthanasia is legal under specific circumstances in some other European countries, which has resulted in some people with incurable conditions arranging to travel abroad to end their lives.

In 2010 the Crown Prosecution Service set out new guidelines on assisted suicide in England and Wales. These put greater emphasis on the motivation of someone suspected of helping someone to die, meaning that cases against those acting with compassion were less likely to be pursued.

However, the director of public prosecutions at the time said it did not change the law on assisted suicide, and did not "open the door for euthanasia."

WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on December 30, 2015

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