Mercy killing, also known as voluntary euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, is essentially an act by one person that is designed to end the life of another who is suffering from extreme pain or incurable illness. It is considered a criminal homicide in most but not all places, though proponents argue that it should be treated differently than malicious murder because, in general, it is done out of love or compassion for the person killed. People who are suffering from prolonged illness often wish to die rather than simply waiting for nature to take its course, though they may not be able to effectively end their lives themselves. Friends and family members of people who are on life support machines or who are only living with the support of ventilation or other medical interventions sometimes also choose to shut these devices off, essentially causing the person attached to die. The practice is highly controversial and polarizing, even in places where it is permitted by law.
Why it Happens
Assisted suicide is usually only referred to as a “mercy killing” if there is some compelling reason why helping someone die could be seen as merciful, and in most cases this comes down to physical suffering. People who live each day in extraordinary pain often wish for death as a way to end their misery, particularly if they know that their condition is terminal and that death is imminent. Sometimes they wish to control the conditions of their death, such as having friends and family nearby, and they often also want to retain at least a bit of lucidity such that they know what’s going on and are able to say their final goodbyes.
How it Happens
There are a couple of different ways people help others die, but lethal drug overdoses are some of the most common. In these cases doctors prescribe drugs in strengths and combinations that are designed to quickly and peacefully end someone’s life. People who are able can self-administer these drugs, usually by swallowing them, or they may have them injected intravenously, too.
Ending medically necessary life support is common as well. People who depend on ventilators or life support machines can request that these machines be switched off, which usually leads to relatively quick death. Family members and loved ones of patients in such situations sometimes choose to remove life support mechanisms on their own, too, often if the patient is unconscious or non-responsive and not expected to ever recover.
Questions of Legality
Assisted suicide is illegal in many places, including most states in the US. Other countries, such as Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, have established provisions for lawful euthanasia, but the practice is typically tightly regulated and can only happen under certain terms and conditions.
In areas where physician-assisted suicide is allowed, it almost always must be carried out by and under the supervision of a licensed medical doctor. In other words, it is generally illegal for anyone other than a doctor to actually administer the life-ending treatments, though others can often be present. Laws in some places specify that only people with certain illnesses or pain conditions are eligible, too.
It is a crime in almost every jurisdiction for non-physicians to end the life of another, even if it is what the person wants. This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen, though. If convicted, the person who illegally performs the mercy killing may be sent to prison.
Prison may also be a reality for physicians who help terminally ill patients end their own lives in areas where the practice is outlawed. One of the most well-known physician-assisted suicide activists was the American pathologist Dr. Jack Kevorkian. He was reported to have illegally assisted in the death of more than 100 patients in the United States, and was convicted of multiple charges of second-degree murder in the late 1990s and sent to prison. He was released in 2007 after agreeing to not provide advice on committing suicide to anyone else, after which he appeared at various universities and on TV talk shows to promote his belief and theories about a patient's right to die.
Mercy killing and physician-assisted suicide is a controversial topic in society and among medical professionals in general, and much of this debate exists apart from its strict legality. Some doctors feel that the practice goes against the profession's do no harm doctrine, while others argue that prolonging the life of someone who wishes to die and who is certain to die soon in the future is a cruel infringement on human rights. A number of religious leaders also oppose the practice on moral and ethical grounds.