Active and Passive Euthanasia 

James Rachels

Abstract    The traditional distinction between active and passive euthanasia requires critical analysis. The conventional doctrine is that there is such an important moral difference between the two that, although the lat­ter is sometimes permissible, the former is always forbidden. This doctrine may be challenged for several reasons. First of all, active euthanasia is in many cases more humane than passive euthanasia. Secondly, the conventional doctrine leads to decisions concerning life and death on irrelevant grounds. Thirdly, the doc­trine rests on a distinction between killing and letting die that itself has no moral importance. Fourthly, the most common arguments in favor of the doctrine are in­valid. I therefore suggest that the American Medical As­sociation policy statement that endorses this doctrine is unsound. (N Engl J Med 292:78-80, 1975)


The distinction between active and passive euthanasia is thought to be crucial for medical ethics. The idea is that it is permissible, at least in some cases, to withhold treatment and allow a patient to die, but it is never per­missible to take any direct action designed to kill the pa­tient. This doctrine seems to be accepted by most doctors, and it is endorsed in a statement adopted by the House of Delegates of the American Medical Association on December 4, 1973: 

The intentional termination of the life of one human being by another -mercy killing - is contrary to that for which the medical profession stands and is contrary to the policy of the American Medical Association.

The cessation of the employment of extraordinary means to prolong the life of the body when there is irrefutable evidence that biological death is imminent is the decision of the patient and/or his immediate family. The advice and judgment of the physician should be freely available to the patient and/or his im­mediate family. 

However, a strong case can be made against this doctrine. In what follows I will set out some of the relevant argu­ments, and urge doctors to reconsider their views on this matter. 

To begin with a familiar type of situation, a patient who is dying of incurable cancer of the throat is in terrible pain, which can no longer be satisfactorily alleviated. He is cer­tain to die within a few days, even if present treatment is continued, but he does not want to go on living for those days since the pain is unbearable. So he asks the doctor for an end to it, and his family joins in the request. 

Suppose the doctor agrees to withhold treatment, as the conventional doctrine says he may. The justification for his doing so is that the patient is in terrible agony, and since he is going to die anyway, it would he wrong to pro­long his suffering needlessly. But now notice this. If one imply withholds treatment, it may take the patient longer to die, and so he may suffer more than he would if noire direct action were taken and a lethal injection given. This fact provides strong reason for thinking that, once the initial decision not to prolong his agony has been made active euthanasia is actually preferable to passive eu­thanasia, rather than the reverse. To say otherwise is to endorse the option that leads to more suffering rather than less, and is contrary to the humanitarian impulse that prompts the decision not to prolong his life in the first place. 

Part of my point is that the process of being "allowed to die" can be relatively slow and painful, whereas being given a lethal injection is relatively quick and painless. Let me give a different sort of example. In the United States about one in 600 babies is born with Down's syndrome. Most of these babies are otherwise healthy -that is, with only the usual pediatric care, they will, proceed to an otherwise normal infancy. Some, however, are born with congenital defects such as intestinal obstructions that re­quire operations if they are to live. Sometimes, the parents and the doctor will decide not to operate, and let the infant die. Anthony Shaw describes what happens then: 

...When surgery is denied (the doctor I must try to keep the infant from suffering while natural forces sap the baby's life away. As a surgeon whose natural inclination is to use the scalpel to fight off death, standing by and watching a salvage­able baby die is the most emotionally exhausting experience I know. It is easy at a conference, in a theoretical discussion, to decide that such infants should be allowed to die. It is altogether different to stand by in the nursery and watch as de­hydration and infection wither a tiny being over hours and days. This is a terrible ordeal for me and the hospital staff - much more so than for the parents who never set foot in the nursery. 

I can understand why some people are opposed to all euthanasia, and insist that such infants must be allowed to live. I think f can also understand why other people favor destroying these babies quickly and painlessly. But why should anyone favor letting "dehydration and infection Hither a tine being over hours and days?" The doctrine that says that a baby may be allowed to dehydrate and wither, but may not for given art injection that would end its life without suffering, seems so patently cruel as to require no further refutation. The strong language is not in. tended to offend, but only to put the point in the clearest possible way.

 My second argument is that the conventional doctrine leads to decisions concerning life and death made on ir­relevant grounds. 

Consider again the case of the infants with Down's syn­drome who need operations for congenital defects un­related to the syndrome to live. Sometimes, there is no operation, and the baby dies, but when there is no such de­fect, the baby lives on. Now, an operation such as that to remove an intestinal obstruction is not prohibitively dif­ficult. The reason why such operations are not performed in these cases is, clearly, that the child has Down's syn­drome and the parents and doctor judge that because of that fact it is better for the child to die. 

But notice that this situation is absurd, no matter what view one takes of the lives and potentials of such babies. 1 f the life of such an infant is worth preserving, what does it matter if it needs a simple operation? Or, if one thinks it letter that such a baby should not live on, what difference does it make that it happens to have an unobstructed in­testinal tract? In either case, the matter of life and death is being decided on irrelevant grounds. It is the Down's syn­drome, and not the intestines, that is the issue. The matter should be decided, if at all, on that basis, and hot be al­lowed to depend on the essentially irrelevant question of whether the intestinal tract is blocked. 

What makes this situation possible, of course, is the idea that when there is an intestinal blockage, one can "let the baby die," but when there is no such defect there is nothing that can be done, for one must not "kill" it. The fact that this idea leads to such results as deciding life or death on irrelevant grounds is another good reason why the doctrine should be rejected. 

One reason why so many people think that there is an important moral difference between active and passive euthanasia is that they think killing someone is morally worse than letting someone die. But is it? Is killing, in itself, worse than letting die? To investigate this issue, two cases may be considered that are exactly alike except that one involves killing whereas the other involves letting someone die. Then, it can be asked whether this differ­ence makes any difference to the moral assessments. It is important that the cases be exactly alike, except for this one difference, since otherwise one cannot be confident that it is this difference and not some other that accounts for any variation in the assessments of the two cases. So, let us consider this pair of cases: 

In the first, Smith stands to gain a large inheritance if anything should happen to his six-year-old cousin. One evening while the child is taking his bath, Smith sneaks in­to the bathroom and drowns the child, and then arranges things so that it will look like an accident. 

In the second, Jones also stands to gain if anything should happen to his six-year-old cousin. Like Smith. Jones sneaks in planning to drown the child in Ills bath. However, just as fie enters the bathroom Jones sees the child slip and hit his head, and fall face down in the water. Jones is delighted; he stands by, ready to push the child's head back under if it is necessary, but it is not necessary. With only a little thrashing about, the child drowns all by himself, "accidentally," as Jones watches and does nothing. 

Now Smith killed the child, whereas Jones "merely" let the child die. That is the only difference between them. Did either man behave better, from a moral point of view? If the difference between killing and letting die were in itself a morally important matter, one should say that Jones's behavior was less reprehensible than Smith's. But does one really want to say that? I think not. In the first place, both men acted from the same motive, personal gain, and both had exactly the same end in view when they acted. I t may be inferred from Smith's conduct that he is a bad man, although that judgment may be withdrawn or modified if certain further facts are learned about him - for example, that he is mentally deranged. But would not the very same thing be inferred about Jones from his con­duct? And would not the same further considerations also be relevant to any, modification of this judgment? More­over, suppose Jones pleaded, in his own defense, "After all, I didn't do anything except just stand there and watch the child drown. I didn't kill him; I only let him die." Again, if letting die were in itself less bad than killing, this defense should have at least some weight. But it does not. Such a "defense" can only be regarded as a grotesque perversion of moral reasoning. Morally speaking, it is no defense at all. 

Now, it may be pointed out, quite properly, that the cases of euthanasia with which doctors are concerned are not like this at all. They do not involve personal gain or the destruction of normal healthy children. Doctors are con­cerned only with cases in which the patient's life is of no further use to him, or in which the patient's life has become or will soon become a terrible burden. However, the point is the same in these cases: the bare difference between killing and letting die does not, in itself, make a moral difference. If a doctor lets a patient die, for humane reasons, he is in the same moral position as if he had given the patient a lethal injection for humane reasons. If his de­cision was wrong  if, for example, the patient's illness was in fact curable the decision would be equally regrettable no matter which method was used to carry it out. And if the doctor's decision was the right one, the method used is not in itself important. 

The AMA policy statement isolates the crucial issue very well; the crucial issue is "the intentional termination of the life of one human being by another." But after iden­tifying this issue, and forbidding "mercy killing," the state­ment goes on to deny that the cessation of treatment is the intentional termination of a life. This is where the mistake conies in, for what is the cessation of treatment, in these circumstances, if it is not "the intentional termination of the life of one human being by another?" Of course it is exactly that, and if it were not, there would be no point to it. 

Many people will find this judgment hard to accept. One reason, I think, is that it is very easy to conflate the question of whether killing is, in it, worse than letting die, with the very different question of whether most ac­tual cases of killing are more reprehensible than most ac­tual cases of letting die. Most actual cases of killing are clearly terrible (think, for example, of all the murders re­ported in the newspapers), and one hears of such crises every day. On the other hand, one hardly ever hears of a race of letting die, except for the actions of doctors who are motivated by humanitarian reasons. So one learns to think of killing in a much worse light than of letting die. But this does not mean that there is something about killing that makes it in itself worse than letting die. for it is not the bare difference between killing and letting die that makes the difference in these cases. Rather, the other factors the murderer's motive of personal gain, for example, contrasted with the doctor's humanitarian motivation account for different reactions to the different cases. 

I have argued that killing is not in itself any worse than letting die; if my contention is right, it follows that active euthanasia is not any worse than passive euthanasia. What arguments can be given on the other side? The most com­mon, I believe, is the following: 

"The important difference between active and passive euthanasia is that, in passive euthanasia, the doctor does not do anything to bring about the patient's death. The doctor does nothing, and the patient dies of whatever ills already afflict him. In active euthanasia, however, the doc­tor does something to bring about the patient's death: he kills him. The doctor who gives the patient with cancer a lethal injection has himself caused his patient's death; whereas if he merely ceases treatment, the cancer is the cause of the death." 

A number of points need to be made here. The first is that it is not exactly correct to say that in passive euthanasia the doctor does nothing, for he does do one thing that is very important: he lets the patient die. "Let­ting someone die" is certainly different, in some respects, from other types of action - mainly in that it is a kind of action that one may perform by way of not performing certain other actions. For example, one may let a patient die by way of not giving medication, just as one may insult someone by way of not shaking his hand. But for any purpose of moral assessment, it is a type of action nonethe­less. The decision to let a patient die is subject to moral ap­praisal in the same way that a decision to kill him would be subject to moral appraisal: it may be assessed as wise or un­ rise, compassionate or sadistic, right of wrong. If a doctor deliberately let a patient die who was suffering from a routinely curable illness, the doctor would certainly be to blame for what he had done, just as he would be to blame if he had needlessly killed the patient. Charges against him would then be appropriate. If so, it would be no defense at all for him to insist that he didn't "do anything." He would have done something very serious indeed, for he let his patient die. 

Fixing the cause of death may be very important from a legal point of view, for it may determine whether criminal charges are brought against the doctor. But I do not think that this notion can be used to show a moral difference between active and passive euthanasia. The reason why it is considered bad to be the cause of someone's death is that death is regarded as a great evil and so it is. However, if it has been decided that euthanasia even passive euthanasia is desirable in a given case, it has also been decided that in this instance death is no greater an evil than the patient's continued existence. And if this is true, the usual reason for not wanting to be the cause of someone's death simply does not apply.


Finally, doctors may think that all of this is only of academic interest the sort of thing that philosophers may worry about but that has no practical bearing on their own work. After all, doctors must be concerned about the legal consequences of what they do, and active euthanasia is clearly forbidden by the law. But even so, doctors should also be concerned with the fact that the law is forcing upon them a moral doctrine that may well be indefensible, and has a considerable effect on their practices. Of course, most doctors are not now in the position of being coerced in this matter, for they do not regard themselves as merely going along with what the law requires. Rather, in state­ments such as the AMA policy statement that I have quot­ed, they are endorsing this doctrine as a central point of medical ethics. In that statement, active euthanasia is con­demned not merely as illegal but as "contrary to that for which the medical profession stands," whereas passive eu­thanasia is approved. However, the preceding considera­tions suggest that there is really no moral difference between the two, considered in themselves (there may be important moral differences in some cases in their consequences, but, as I pointed out, these differences may make active euthanasia, and not passive euthanasia, the morally preferable option). So, whereas doctors may have to discriminate between active and passive euthanasia to satisfy the law, they should not do any more than that. In particular, they should not give the distinction any added authority and weight by writing it into official statements of medical ethics.

Reprinted by permission of THE NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE, Vol. 292, January 9, 1975, pp. 78-80.

Return to:                 Table of Contents for the Online Textbook

© Copyright Philip A. Pecorino 2002. All rights reserved.

Web Surfer's Caveat: These are materials intended for class use.  They are not intended for publication or general distribution