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J Med Ethics 33:187-188 doi:10.1136/jme.2007.020446
  • Editorial

Terminal sedation: source of a restless ethical debate

  1. Johannes J M van Delden
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr J J M van Delden
 Julius Center for Health Sciences, University Medical Center Utrecht, HP Str 6.131, PO Box 85500, 3508 GA Utrecht, The Netherlands; j.j.m.vandelden{at}umcutrecht.nl
  • Received 16 January 2007
  • Accepted 16 January 2007
  • Revised 16 January 2007

Slow euthanasia or a good palliative intervention?

There are many ways in which doctors influence the circumstances and/or the timing of a patient’s death. Some of these are accepted as normal medical practice—for instance, when a disproportional treatment is forgone, others are considered tolerable only under strict conditions or even intolerable, such as non-voluntary active euthanasia. A relatively new phenomenon in the ethical discussion on end-of-life decisions is terminal sedation. Terminal sedation is used in patients with terminal illnesses where normal medical treatments cannot relieve severe symptoms such as pain and agitation, and no option is left but to take away the perception of these symptoms. Often, the decision to start terminal sedation is accompanied by the decision to forgo the provision of artificial nutrition and hydration in these patients. In The Netherlands, terminal sedation was estimated to be applied in 4–10% of all deaths in 2001.1 The combination of these two decisions have made the moral status of terminal sedation the subject of fierce ethical debates. Is it slow euthanasia2,3 or is it a good palliative intervention that should be sharply distinguished from euthanasia?4,5 One of the characteristics of this debate is that it is a very confused one: people disagree about the meaning of the term, the appropriateness of it and, of course, about the conditions under which it (what?) would be morally justified. As a matter of fact, these three discussions are deeply connected: as is often the case, a discussion about terms is a discussion about norms in disguise.

The first observation to be made is that many seemingly descriptive definitions of terminal sedation contain normative claims. Examples of this are definitions of terminal sedation in which only …