Philosophy Medically Assisted Dying
Robert Young
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0042


Although a few noteworthy philosophical contributions were made in the middle of the last century to the debate about the moral and legal permissibility of physician-assisted suicide, voluntary euthanasia, and nonvoluntary euthanasia, the intensity of the debate within philosophical (and other) forums has risen dramatically since the late 1970s. This article covers both the moral permissibility of medically assisted dying and the distinct issue of whether it should be legalized. The focus is on works of philosophical significance, except for one section on key empirical studies of legalized medically assisted dying in the Netherlands and Oregon. Restrictions on the number of sources have resulted in many worthy philosophical, medical, legal, and more popular publications not being included.

Early Works

Efforts to introduce legislation to facilitate medically assisted dying were rare before the middle of the 20th century. However, from the 1950s to the late 1970s significant contributions were made canvassing the moral and legal permissibility of medically assisted dying that undoubtedly have influenced the subsequent debate. Williams 1957 and Flew 1969 offer important, early support to the moral and legal permissibility of voluntary euthanasia, as do several contributors to Kohl 1975. Glover 1977 was more widely read and, as a consequence, more influential. Among works contending that voluntary euthanasia was morally impermissible, and so should remain legally prohibited, Kamisar 1958 is considered seminal and continues to be cited to the present day. Gould and Craigmyle 1971 provides staunch support for retaining legal prohibitions on medically assisted dying. Though more measured, Foot 1977 gained prominence for highlighting the danger, were voluntary euthanasia to be legalized, of sliding down a (psychological) slippery slope to approval of nonvoluntary euthanasia. Whether nonvoluntary euthanasia should be administered to severely disabled infants is canvassed in Kohl 1978.

  • Flew, A. “The Principle of Euthanasia.” In Euthanasia and the Right to Death: The Case for Voluntary Euthanasia. Edited by A. B. Downing, 30–48. London: Peter Owen, 1969.

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    Advances a moral case in favor of a public policy legitimizing a legal right to voluntary euthanasia.

  • Foot, Philippa. “Euthanasia.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 6.2 (1977): 85–112.

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    Approves of passive voluntary euthanasia but opposes legalization of active voluntary euthanasia, because of the risks of abuse and of introducing a slippery slope.

  • Glover, Jonathan. Causing Death and Saving Lives: The Moral Problems of Abortion, Infanticide, Suicide, Euthanasia, Capital Punishment, War and Other Life-or-Death Choices. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1977.

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    Favors voluntary euthanasia provided that bad side-effects do not dominate and competent requests can be identified.

  • Gould, Jonathan, and Lord Craigmyle. Your Death Warrant? Implications of Euthanasia—A Medical, Legal, and Ethical Study. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1971.

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    In 1969 the Voluntary Euthanasia Bill was introduced in the House of Lords. A study group formed to consider the bill, composed of Catholic doctors, lawyers, and one politician, produced this book by way of response.

  • Kamisar, Y. “Some Non-religious Views against Proposed ‘Mercy-Killing’ Legislation.” Minnesota Law Review 42.6 (1958): 969–1042.

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    An enduringly significant philosophico-legal critique of the idea of legalizing voluntary euthanasia.

  • Kohl, Marvin, ed. Beneficent Euthanasia. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1975.

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    Wide-ranging discussion of philosophical, theological, legal, and medical viewpoints about suicide and euthanasia.

  • Kohl, Marvin, ed. Infanticide and the Value of Life. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1978.

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    A useful collection of papers on infanticide exploring anthropological, ethical, legal, psychological, and religious questions raised by the practice.

  • Williams, Glanville. The Sanctity of Life and the Criminal Law. New York: Knopf, 1957.

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    A vigorous defense of the proposition that because the criminal law should be concerned only with killings that bear on public security, voluntary euthanasia should not be prohibited, accompanied by brief suggestions on legalization.

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