The terms “physician-assisted suicide” and “euthanasia” are often used interchangeably. However, the distinctions are significant.

“Physician-assisted suicide” involves a medical doctor who intentionally provides a patient with the means to kill him or herself, usually by an overdose of prescription medication.

“Assisted suicide” involves a layperson providing the patient with the deadly means for suicide.

“Euthanasia” involves the intentional and direct killing of a patient by a physician, most commonly by lethal injection, or by another party. Euthanasia can be voluntary (at the patient’s request), non-voluntary (without the knowledge or consent of the patient), or involuntary (against the patients wishes).

It is important to note that a person can reject medical treatment at the end of life without committing euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide.

Euthanasia in the Netherlands

Physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia are legal and widely practiced in the Netherlands where:

  • About 9% of all deaths were a result of physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia in 1990.
  • Dutch doctors practice active euthanasia by lethal injections (96.6% of all deaths actively caused by physicians in 1990). Physician-assisted suicide is very infrequent (no more than 3.4% of all cases in Holland of active termination of life in 1990).
  • For patients who die of a lethal overdose of painkillers, the decision to administer the lethal dose of drugs was not discussed with 61% of those receiving it, even though 27% were fully competent.
  • The Board of the Royal Dutch Medical Association endorsed euthanasia on newborns and infants with extreme disabilities.
  • Well over 10,000 citizens now carry “Do Not Euthanize Me” cards in case they are admitted to a hospital unexpectedly.
  • Cases exist where doctors administer assisted suicide for people determined to be “chronically” depressed.

Euthanasia in America

Oregon is the only state in America that has legalized physician-assisted suicide.

  • A recent Health Division report of assisted suicides reveals that not one patient had documented uncontrollable pain. All of the patients who requested assisted suicide cited psychological and social concerns as their primary reasons.
  • “Although numerous studies in the Netherlands and elsewhere report an assisted-suicide failure rate up to 25%, Oregon has yet to report even one complication in over four years. This failure to report complications has led even euthanasia advocates themselves to call the credibility of Oregon reporting on assisted suicide into question.” (Sherwin B. Nuland, “Physician-Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia in Practice,” New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 342, February 24, 2000.)
  • The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1997 in Washington v. Glucksberg that there is no federal constitutional substantive right to assisted suicide.  In a 1997 companion case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Vacco v. Quill that there is no federal constitutional equal protection right to assisted suicide.
  • Virtually every established medical and nursing organization in the United States declares physician-assisted suicide is unethical.
  • There are no laws, medical associations, church denominations, or right-to-life groups who insist that unnecessary, heroic, or truly futile treatments be provided to prolong life and all recognize the right of competent patients to refuse medical treatment.
  • 95% of cancer pain is controllable and the remaining 5% can be reduced to a tolerable level.
  • The states of California, Washington, Michigan and Maine rejected ballot referenda questions to legalize physician-assisted suicide in their respective states. The Supreme Court of Alaska in Alaska v. Sampson declared there is no state constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide, as did the Florida State upreme Court in McIver v. Kirscher. The Hawaii State Senate voted down a bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide.

Additional resources:

The National Catholic Bioethics Center: