Doctor reignites euthanasia row in Belgium after mercy killingBMJ 2006; 332 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.332.7538.382-c (Published 16 February 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:382
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While the quality of mercy may not be strained (1), it is unfortunate
to see the
BMJ adding to the subversion of the meaning of this virtue in clinical
discourse. To describe euthanasia, and in particular that of a person with
impaired cognitive function, as a 'mercy killing' is a perversion of a
that has sustained altruism and compassion in medicine for generations.
misuse of the term adds to the moral confusion attending much of the
about what constitutes a good death, and indeed this type of assault on
vulnerable populations has been predicted recently in the BMJ (2). The use
'mercy' in this context creates much the same uncomfortable feeling as the
word 'democratic' in the official title of the former German Democratic
This linguistic assault on a central concept of good ethical practice
mirrored by the undermining of the term 'dignity', by routinely pairing
slogan 'death with dignity' with assisted suicide/euthanasia rather than
death supported by appropriate levels of palliative care. This is doubly
disappointing as common perceptions of a loss of dignity at the time of
are not sustained by research (3).
It is not surprising that a European Union project on dignity in
later life seems
to have gravitated towards the German phrase Menschenwürde (the 'worth of
being human') to define the central concept of dignity rather than the now
formless English term (4). Do we now have to search for an as yet
continental European form of mercy (Gnade doesn't quite trip off the
or might we ask editors of major medical journals to declare a moratorium
the phrase 'mercy killing'.
1) Shakespeare W. The Merchant of Venice. Act IV, Scene 1.
2) George RJ, Finlay IG, Jeffrey D. Legalised euthanasia will violate the
of vulnerable patients. BMJ 2005;331:684-685
3) Agrawal M, Emanuel E. Death and dignity: dogma disputed. Lancet.
The varieties of dignity. Health Care Anal. 2004;12:69-81
Competing interests: No competing interests