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Med Law. 2006 Dec;25(4):747-51.

Terminal sedation: between pain relief, withholding treatment and euthanasia.

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  • 1Academic Medical Center, University of Amsterdam.


In the last five to ten years there has been increasing debate on terminal sedation, a medical practice that is difficult to place between other decisions at the end of life, like alleviating pain, withholding treatment, and (in jurisdictions where this is allowed) euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide. Terminal sedation is the administration of sedative drugs with the aim to reduce the consciousness of a terminal patient in order to relieve distress. It is frequently accompanied by the withdrawal (or withholding) of life-sustaining interventions, such as hydration and nutrition. It is typically a measure of the last resort, to be considered in situations where all other measures to reduce pain and suffering have failed. While similar to palliative measures as far as the sedation itself is concerned, withholding of hydration and nutrition brings terminal sedation into the realm of non treatment decisions. At the same time, to the extent that the combination of these two measures may shorten the patient's life, the practice may be easily associated with euthanasia. It is no surprise therefore, that terminal sedation has been called (and has been disqualified as) 'slow euthanasia' or 'backdoor euthanasia'. This paper addresses the question how terminal sedation may be looked upon from a legal point of view. Is it indeed a disguised form of euthanasia, or should it be considered as a practice in its own right? In the latter case, what does it imply in legal terms, and under which conditions and safeguards could it be legally justified? To answer these questions, I will look first at the different clinical realities that may be brought under the heading 'terminal sedation'. Then I will deal with its two components--sedation on the one hand, and withholding artificial feeding on the other--in a legal perspective. The paper ends with conclusions on terminal sedation as a whole.

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