What Passive Euthanasia Is

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Euthanasia can be thought of as being either active or passive; but the precise definition of “passive euthanasia” is not always clear. Though all passive euthanasia involves the withholding of life-sustaining treatment, there would appear to be some disagreement about whether all such withholding should be seen as passive euthanasia.

Main text
At the core of the disagreement is the question of the importance of an intention to bring about death: must one intend to bring about the death of the patient in order for withholding treatment to count as passive euthanasia, as some sources would indicate, or does withholding in which death is merely foreseen belong to that category? We may expect that this unclarity would be important in medical practice, in law, and in policy. The idea that withholding life-sustaining treatment is passive euthanasia is traced to James Rachels’s arguments, which lend themselves to the claim that passive euthanasia does not require intention to end life. Yet the argument here is that Rachels’s arguments are flawed, and we have good reasons to think that intention is important in understanding the moral nature of actions. As such, we should reject any understanding of passive euthanasia that does not pay attention to intent.

Short conclusion
James Rachels’s work on active and passive euthanasia has been immensely influential; but this is an influence that we ought to resist.
Original languageEnglish
Article number41
JournalBMC Medical Ethics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 14 May 2020


  • End-of-life care
  • Euthanasia
  • Intent
  • James Rachels
  • Passive euthanasia
  • Withholding treatment


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