The importance of the distinction between killing and allowing to die

A recent Google News article attributed to the French news agency AFP reminded me that many people who think and write about euthanasia either fail to make a distinction between killing and allowing to die or claim that there is no distinction. The article is about the recent legalization of physician assisted suicide in Vermont. Most of the article is simply reporting about the law that was recently passed by the Vermont legislature and signed by the governor making Vermont the third state in the US with a legal process for physician assisted suicide. However, the article ended with the statement “A Pew Research Center poll found that 84 percent of Americans support allowing a terminally ill adult patient to decide if they want to be kept alive.” There was no recognition that the topic of the article and the topic of the poll were two very different things.

The topic of the poll appears to be the permissibility of withholding or with drawing life-sustaining treatment in those who are terminally ill. We have reached a point in medicine in which many people who are dying can be given treatment that will prolong their lives somewhat even though death is still inevitable. It has become clear that it is not necessarily in the best interest of those who are dying to do everything possible to prolong life. Therefore it has become common for people who are terminally ill to decide to stop or forgo any further life-prolonging treatments as more of a burden than a benefit and allow death to come as a result of their disease. That is a reasonable moral choice compatible with a high view of the value of human life with an acceptance of our mortality. Physician assisted suicide is something very different. It is not a forgoing of treatment and allowing death to come naturally. It is an intentional ending of life before death comes as the result of disease.

There is a significant moral difference between intentionally ending a human life and ceasing to resist an inevitable death. The first says that the person’s life is not worth living. The second recognizes the value of human life, but also recognizes that we are not immortal and accepts death as it comes. It is only as we understand the distinction between killing and allowing to die that we can understand why it is not necessary to do every possible treatment to keep a terminal patient alive, but it is wrong to intentionally end a human life by our own action.

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Steve PhillipsRobin Recent comment authors
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Just checking, but I think Vermont is the 4th state to legalize PAS – Oregon, Washington (?), Montana, and now Vermont. Is that right?


sorry, btw, great post!