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Terminal Sedation

Terminal sedation usually refers to when a consenting patient is sedated to the point of unconsciousness to relieve otherwise untreatable pain and suffering, and is then allowed to die of dehydration or other intervening complications. The goal of administering the sedative, to relieve otherwise unrelievable suffering, is good. Whether death is intended or merely foreseen is less clear. Unlike the use of high-dose opioids to relieve pain, with death as a possible but undesired side effect, terminal sedation inevitably causes death, which in many cases is what the patient desires. It is for this reason that terminal sedation has sometimes been called “slow euthanasia.” Although the overall expressed goal of terminal sedation is to relieve otherwise uncontrollable suffering, life-prolonging therapies are withdrawn with the intent of hastening death. 

According to Timothy Quill, terminal sedation would thus not be permitted under the rule of double effect, even though it is usually considered acceptable according to current legal and medical ethical standards. 

It recently has been proposed as an alternative to physician-assisted suicide persons whose suffering cannot be addressed by standard pain management and cessation of life support (1-9). In the United States, for example, the practice of terminal sedation does not require changes in the law (1-4). The patient is sedated to unconsciousness to relieve severe physical suffering and is then allowed to die of dehydration or some other intervening complication. Terminal sedation is ethically considered to be a combination of aggressive symptom management (sedatives to treat unbearable symptoms) and withdrawal of life-sustaining therapy (fluids, nutrition, and other treatments). When considered as an aggregate act, terminal sedation may be more morally complex and ambiguous than is generally acknowledged (1, 8-10), but many persons who adamantly oppose physician-assisted suicide find this practice acceptable (11-12 ). The practice differs from euthanasia in that the dose of medication is maintained but not increased once sedation is achieved and no subsequent intervention to accelerate death, such as the introduction of a muscle-paralyzing agent, is given. 

See also: 

Double effect , and 

“The Rule of Double Effect — A Critique of Its Role in End-of-Life Decision Making.” The New England Journal of Medicine — December 11, 1997 — Vol. 337, No. 24, by Timothy E. Quill, M.D., Rebecca Dresser, J.D., and Dan W. Brock.


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8. Quill TE. The ambiguity of clinical intentions. N Engl J Med. 1993;329:1039-40. | PubMed | 

9. Quill TE, Dresser R, Brock DW. The rule of double effecta critique of its role in end-of-life decision making. N Engl J Med. 1997;337:1768-71. | PubMed | 

10. Billings JA, Block SD. Slow euthanasia. J Palliat Care. 1996;12:21-30. | PubMed | 

11. Byock IR. Consciously walking the fine line: thoughts on a hospice response to assisted suicide and euthanasia. J Palliat Care. 1993;9:25-8. | PubMed | 

12. Lynn J, Cohn F, Pickering JH, Smith J, Stoeppelwerth AM. American Geriatrics Society on physician-assisted suicide: brief to the United States Supreme Court. J Am Geriatr Soc. 1997;45:489-99. | PubMed |