Weakening the ethical distinction between euthanasia, palliative opioid use and palliative sedation

Thomas David Riisfeldt

Journal of Medical Ethics

Abstract

Opioid and sedative use are common ‘active’ practices in the provision of mainstream palliative care services, and are typically distinguished from euthanasia on the basis that they do not shorten survival time. Even supposing that they did, it is often argued that they are justified and distinguished from euthanasia via appeal to Aquinas’ Doctrine of Double Effect. In this essay, I will appraise the empirical evidence regarding opioid/sedative use and survival time, and argue for a position of agnosticism. I will then argue that the Doctrine of Double Effect is a useful ethical tool but is ultimately not a sound ethical principle, and even if it were, it is unclear whether palliative opioid/sedative use satisfy its four criteria. Although this essay does not establish any definitive proofs, it aims to provide reasons to doubt—and therefore weaken—the often-claimed ethical distinction between euthanasia and palliative opioid/sedative use.


Riisfeldt TD. Weakening the ethical distinction between euthanasia, palliative opioid use and palliative sedation. J Med Ethics 2019;45:125-130.

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