Monash Bioethics Review 20 (4):7-29 (2001)

The recently published BMA Guidelines on Withholding and Withdrawing Medical Treatment encourage a balance between deriving maximal benefit from medical treatment, and achieving as natural a death as possible in the circumstances. I argue that the concepts of burdensomeness, natural death and medicalised death are of greater fundamental importance than that of intention, and do not help constitute a moral distinction between withdrawal of treatment and active assistance to die. Nor should they continue to ground the corresponding legal distinction. In the situations of both treatment withdrawal and active assistance to die, disease causation, human agency and moral responsibility are related in the same way. In both situations, we can intend that a person die for the right reasons, based on a concern for natural death.However, the law is reluctant to impose positive obligations on people, in contrast to the protection of negative rights. For example, the Northern Territory’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act provided for assisted death as a lawful exception to an otherwise unlawful act, rather than as an enforceable right like the right to refuse unwanted medical treatment. Nevertheless, that the enforceability of a positive right to assisted death is difficult to conceive, is itself the product of a particular historical/moral/religious frame of reference currently under deconstruction. Genuine natural death statutes would consolidate the important principles supported here, and could apply uniform safeguards to all death-hastening decisions.
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DOI 10.1007/bf03351261
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