By Alex Schadenberg of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition

Editor’s note: The following commentary from Alex Schadenberg comes in response to a study in the Netherlands which found that 1,800 people – 7.1 percent of all deaths in the Netherlands in 2005 – were drugged into so-called continuous deep sedation shortly before dying. This compares with 5.6 percent of cases in 2001. At the same time, the use of euthanasia fell from 2.6 percent of all deaths to 1.7 percent, representing a decrease of 1,200 cases.

The question of the use of deep sedation in the Netherlands as the alternative form of euthanasia is an important question.

In the case of deep sedation, a person is usually sedated and then fluids and food are withdrawn, resulting in an intentional death by dehydration or “slow euthanasia.”

Intentionally killing someone by injection (or as Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland now does, with a plastic bag and helium) usually takes several minutes and usually not more than one hour.

To intentionally kill someone by dehydration usually takes 10 – 14 days.

The problem with the moral assessment of deep sedation is that not all acts of deep sedation are related to decisions to intentionally kill the person. Sometimes a person is very near to death and experiencing intractable pain. The person is sedated and dies within a few days. This is not euthanasia, but in fact good palliative care.

Deep sedation can also be used in other cases when someone is not near to death but also experiencing intractable pain. These people can be sedated for several days. Fluids and food, however, should be continued, and after the short period of time the person comes out of the sedated state. These people are sometimes relaxed from their time of sedation and can be effectively treated for pain and symptom management without re-sedating them.

The point is: deep sedation can be used as a form of “slow euthanasia” or it can be effectively used as a form of good palliative care.

We must point out that when deep sedation is used as a form of euthanasia, this is an abuse of medical ethics. Such sedation is often an imposed death, whereby the family is not informed that the reason for the deep sedation is to cause the death of their family member.

Like all acts of euthanasia, deep sedation can be abused and is a direct threat to the lives of the most vulnerable people in our society who are not given the care and respect that is due a human person.