James Rachels, “Active and Passive Euthanasia,” in Larry May, Applied Ethics: A Multicultural Approach, Prentice Hall, 2011, 5th ed., pp. 484-488.
James Rachels argues that active euthanasia is sometimes morally defensible. Rachels charges that the American Medical Association (AMA) is inconsistent in its policy concerning the withholding of end-of-life treatment. To be consistent, Rachels argues, the AMA should allow active as well as passive euthanasia.
In a 1973 AMA statement, Rachels contends, the AMA allowed passive euthanasia but disallowed active euthanasia. Active euthanasia, however, may sometimes be more humane than passive. Out of compassion, according to Rachels, a person in great pain and close to death may be given an overdose or a poison to hasten death.
Rachels asserts that active euthanasia has been distinguished from passive euthanasia for legal purposes. He claims, however, that morally the distinction is meaningless. Our intuitions tell us that both active and passive euthanasia are blameworthy in some circumstances and praiseworthy in others.
Rachels compares two scenarios in which a child drowns in a bathtub. An older cousin, who stands to inherit a fortune if the child dies, actively drowns the child in one scenario; in another scenario, the older cousin passively watches the child drown after a fall in the tub. Both responses, Rachels asserts, are morally reprehensible. He concludes that the mere distinction between active and passive involvement is morally irrelevant.
[Passive euthanasia is the intentional termination of the life of another to relieve suffering by the withholding of life-prolonging treatment.
[Active euthanasia is the intentional termination of the life of another to relieve suffering by the introduction of a poison or overdose to end life.
[Voluntary euthanasia is the intentional termination the life of another to relieve suffering with the consent of the patient.
[Involuntary euthanasia is the intentional termination of the life of another to relieve suffering without the consent of the patient.]