What Is the Connection between Palliative Care and Euthanasia?

Jillian O Keeffe

When a person is very ill and is nearing the end of life, palliative care is an appropriate type of medical attention. This involves issuing medication and other forms of treatment that make the dying person as comfortable as possible, but which cannot lengthen life or cure the illness. Euthanasia is a situation where another person, such as a doctor or a family member, deliberately ends the patient's life in an attempt to prevent suffering. Palliative care and euthanasia are two separate concepts, but as palliative care often includes the use of morphine as a painkiller, it is theoretically possible that the patient's life may be shortened if too much of the drug is administered.

Palliative care and euthanasia are completely different medical care situations.
Palliative care and euthanasia are completely different medical care situations.

Normally, palliative care takes into account the needs and the preferences of the patient and family. If the dying person is in a lot of pain, a strong painkiller such as morphine may be necessary to make his or quality of life better. One advantage of morphine, apart from the numbing of the pain, is that the patient may be able to converse more comfortably with loved ones. Friends and family members may also experience a lessening of stress as the patient's comfort level rises.

Palliative care and euthanasia are completely different medical care situations, but the strong drugs that are commonly used in palliative care settings may also be used in euthanasia. Euthanasia is a term that can refer to several different types of death, but what they all have in common is that the aim of the euthanasia is to end a life, usually to prevent suffering. Conditions where palliative care and euthanasia can connect require specific conditions.

Sometimes in palliative care a person with a terminal illness can self-administer a painkiller when necessary. In other cases, medical professionals administer the painkillers. Painkillers can have effects beyond the pain numbing characteristics of the drugs. Morphine, for example, in high enough doses, can make the patient less able to breathe normally, and this may make the onset of death quicker than it would otherwise have been.

It is possible, therefore, for a patient or doctor to administer enough drugs to speed up the death process, which may be seen as euthanasia if the patient does not self-administer the morphine. Strictly, though, the term "euthanasia" requires the administering of drugs intended to kill the patent before natural death occurs. The risk of this is usually taken against the need for strong drugs to relieve the dying person of pain. Although this type of palliative care and euthanasia interaction is often seen as quite common for dying people, a doctor can usually spot the signs of overdose of drugs, and can take steps to improve breathing and therefore lifespan.

Euthanasia in palliative care, therefore, does not usually coincide, although the heavy painkillers can potentially shorten life. This may occur, especially if the dying person does not wish to have any medical intervention to alleviate the effects of high doses of painkillers. Other forms of euthanasia that may not be illegal in some countries include the withdrawal of medical treatment as according to the patient's wishes, or if the patient is comatose or otherwise unable to make a decision, the family's wishes may be taken into account.

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