Mercy Killing

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A mercy killing is the intentional ending of life of a person who is suffering from a terminal, painful illness. The term–also called “right to die”–is most often used to describe voluntary euthanasia, though it is also used in reference to non-voluntary euthanasia and involuntary euthanasia.

Voluntary euthanasia is considered either passive or active. Passive voluntary euthanasia is when a person dies after refusing or withdrawing their consent for lifesaving medical intervention. This is legal in many countries, including the United States following Cruzan v. Missouri Department of Health, where the Supreme Court decided that a competent person had “a constitutionally protected right to refuse lifesaving hydration and nutrion.” Active voluntary euthanasia, on the other hand, generally occurs when a person is administered large doses of painkilling medication. This term includes assisted suicide, where a patient is provided with the medication to end their own life. The term also includes physician assisted suicide, where a licensed medical professional administers the medication. Active voluntary euthanasia is legal in some countries, to some extent. These countries include Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and some states in Australia. In the United States, the Supreme Court refused to recognize active voluntary euthanasia as a Constitutional right in Washington v. Glucksberg. However, some states have recognized a right to active voluntary euthanasia through death with dignity statutes.  

Non-voluntary euthanasia, on the other hand, involves a patient who is unable to consent to life-ending measures. Involuntary euthanasia involves a patient who does not or resists such measures. Both are illegal in all countries.

[Last updated in June of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]