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J Pain Symptom Manage. 2014 Jan;47(1):123-36. doi: 10.1016/j.jpainsymman.2013.03.008. Epub 2013 Jun 4.

Palliative sedation versus euthanasia: an ethical assessment.

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Center for Healthcare Ethics, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. Electronic address:
Center for Health Policy and Ethics, Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.


The aim of this article was to review the ethical debate concerning palliative sedation. Although recent guidelines articulate the differences between palliative sedation and euthanasia, the ethical controversies remain. The dominant view is that euthanasia and palliative sedation are morally distinct practices. However, ambiguous moral experiences and considerable practice variation call this view into question. When heterogeneous sedative practices are all labeled as palliative sedation, there is the risk that palliative sedation is expanded to include practices that are actually intended to bring about the patients' death. This troublesome expansion is fostered by an expansive use of the concept of intention such that this decisive ethical concept is no longer restricted to signify the aim in guiding the action. In this article, it is argued that intention should be used in a restricted way. The significance of intention is related to other ethical parameters to demarcate the practice of palliative sedation: terminality, refractory symptoms, proportionality, and separation from other end-of-life decisions. These additional parameters, although not without ethical and practical problems, together formulate a framework to ethically distinguish a more narrowly defined practice of palliative sedation from practices that are tantamount to euthanasia. Finally, the article raises the question as to what impact palliative sedation might have on the practice of palliative care itself. The increasing interest in palliative sedation may reemphasize characteristics of health care that initially encouraged the emergence of palliative care in the first place: the focus on therapy rather than care, the physical dimension rather than the whole person, the individual rather than the community, and the primacy of intervention rather than receptiveness and presence.


End-of-life care; ethics; euthanasia; hospice philosophy; palliative care; palliative sedation; physician-assisted dying; terminal sedation

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