May 26, 2024

Canadian docs cut the Gordian knot of euthanasia

Just drop the word

The editors of the Canadian Medical
Association Journal have proposed a new way to tackle the noisy euthanasia
debate in their country – expunging the word euthanasia from the dictionary. In
their most recent editorial they argue that the word “mixes ideas and values
that confuses the debate about dying”.

The term, euthanasia, is from the Greek and
was coined in 1646, they say. It was intended to mean a gentle and easy death.
A nuance was introduced, by 1742, referring to the means of bringing about such
a death and, in 1859, to the action of inducing such a death. Modern
dictionaries have a variety of definitions, but they all imply the same
meaning, an intentional action to bring about death in someone who is

“Euthanasia’s broad meaning has
inadvertently enveloped a set of actions that also involve the relief of
symptoms in dying people,” write the authors. “For example giving
enough narcotic to relieve pain in cancer patients and adding enough sedation
to enable comfort and minimize agitation is appropriate and compassionate care,
even when the amounts required increase the probability of death. It can be
argued that, in such circumstances, death becomes an acceptable side-effect of
effective palliation. But, in our view, it is not euthanasia.”

They contend that doctors should “stop
using the word euthanasia to describe the actions we might take to help dying
patients and stop using such value-laden terms as starve and kill to explain
those medical actions. Instead, we can clearly and dispassionately name and
define each action as well as its possible repercussions.” ~ CMAJ, Mar 29

Michael Cook