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The death of a word: euthanasia

March 29, 2010 |  9:03 am

Euthanasia People disagree vehemently on issues surrounding death and dying, such as what palliative and medical measures can be appropriately taken at the end of life. But use of the term "euthanasia" doesn't advance the intelligent discussion of end-of-life care, say editors of the Canadian Medical Assn. Journal.

In a commentary published Monday, Dr. Paul C. Hébert and Dr. Ken Flegel argue that the meaning of euthanasia "has become frayed and torn. It mixes ideas and values that confound the debate about dying. It is time to discard it."

Euthanasia originally conveyed the idea of a gentle death. The term eventually evolved and took on another meaning: actions that bring about a gentle death. According to the authors, however, the meaning of the term has broadened further -- and has become clouded -- to encompass actions that involve providing relief to dying people. For example, a survey of doctors in Quebec last year found that 81% said they had practiced euthanasia, and that 48% said palliative sedation -- in which medication is given to provide comfort but which may hasten death -- can be likened to euthanasia.

That's the wrong interpretation, Hebert and Flegel write, saying that "...administering enough narcotics to relieve pain in patients with cancer 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."

Instead of calling such an action euthanasia, health professionals should avoid terms that mean different things to different people, the editorial states. Instead, it advises, doctors should describe their proposed action and its intention and avoid loaded words.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Eric Boyd / Los Angeles Times