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Bioethics. 2013 Jun;27(5):257-62. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8519.2011.01944.x. Epub 2012 Feb 2.

Moral fiction or moral fact? The distinction between doing and allowing in medical ethics.

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1
Division of General Internal Medicine, University of Alabama-at-Birmingham School of Medicine, Birmingham, AL 35294, USA. thuddle@uab.edu

Abstract

Opponents of physician-assisted suicide (PAS) maintain that physician withdrawal-of-life-sustaining-treatment cannot be morally equated to voluntary active euthanasia. PAS opponents generally distinguish these two kinds of act by positing a possible moral distinction between killing and allowing-to-die, ceteris paribus. While that distinction continues to be widely accepted in the public discourse, it has been more controversial among philosophers. Some ethicist PAS advocates are so certain that the distinction is invalid that they describe PAS opponents who hold to the distinction as in the grip of 'moral fictions'. The author contends that such a diagnosis is too hasty. The possibility of a moral distinction between active euthanasia and allowing-to-die has not been closed off by the argumentative strategies employed by these PAS advocates, including the contrasting cases strategy and the assimilation of doing and allowing to a common sense notion of causation. The philosophical debate over the doing/allowing distinction remains inconclusive, but physicians and others who rely upon that distinction in thinking about the ethics of end-of-life care need not give up on it in response to these arguments.

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