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Strengthening the ethical distinction between euthanasia, palliative opioid use and palliative sedation
  1. Xavier Symons
  1. Correspondence to Mr Xavier Symons, Institute for Ethics and Society, University of Notre Dame Australia, Sydney, New South Wales 2007, Australia; xavier.symons{at}

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Thomas Riisfeldt’s essay1 is a valuable contribution to the literature on palliative sedation, appropriately titrated administration of opioids (ATAOs) and euthanasia. In this response, I will not deal with the author’s empirical claim about the relationship between opioid use, palliative sedation and survival time. Rather, I will briefly critique the author’s discussion of doctrine of double effect  (DDE) and its application to palliative sedation and opioid use at the end of life. That is, I will focus on the ethical claims made by the author. Riisfeldt argues that DDE is incompatible with both Kantian deontology and Millian consequentialism. Yet, I will argue that the DDE is coherent and defensible when interpreted from the perspective of the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, the theorist who first proposed the doctrine. I will also argue that Riisfeldt mischaracterises ATAOs and palliative sedation as procedures that hasten death as a means to relieve pain. While death may indeed be hastened by ATAOs and palliative sedation, it is not at all clear that clinicians intend to hasten death as a means to relieve pain. Indeed, clinical guidelines explicitly prohibit the intentional hastening of death.

Mill and Kant versus Aquinas on double effect

Riisfeldt provides a brief summary of the DDE. He describes DDE as a ‘strange hybrid of four principles’. He lists the four criteria that must be met for an act with a good and a bad effect to be permissible. These criteria are the ‘intention and means criteria’ and the ‘intrinsic and proportionality criteria’ (p.127).

The author uses Kant and Mill as lens through which to highlight a tension between the intrinsic and proportionality criteria of DDE. The author claims that ‘the intrinsic criterion is derived from deontology, the predominant form of which is championed by Kant’, and that ‘the proportionality criterion is derived from consequentialism, the predominant form of …

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  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

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