Suffering, euthanasia and professional expertise

Xavier Symons1

1 Research Associate, Institute for Ethics and Society, University of Notre Dame Australia. L1, 104 Broadway (PO Box 944), Broadway NSW 2007. Email:

Many bioethicists have considered the question, ‘is appropriate for a doctor to be involved in actively ending a patient’s life’? Discussion of this issue has typically focused on the compatibility of euthanasia with the doctor’s role as a ‘healer’. In this paper I approach the question from a different angle; I consider whether doctors are qualified to make the value judgement involved in assessing the appropriateness of euthanasia for a patient.

I begin my paper by discussing the nature of suffering, and specifically the nature of the suffering experienced by patients who request euthanasia. I argue that the kind of suffering experienced by patients requesting euthanasia is far more complex than mere physiological pain and distress. In the second section of the paper I argue that the sort of suffering experienced by patients desiring euthanasia falls outside the area of expertise of clinicians; I suggest that clinicians are acting beyond their professional capacity when they make a judgment about the appropriateness of euthanasia for such individuals. I conclude by presenting a number of options for policy makers to address this problem of professional expertise.


Xavier is a Research Associate with the Institute for Ethics and Society at the University of Notre Dame. He is also a PhD candidate with the Centre for Moral Philosophy and Applied Ethics at the Australian Catholic University. In 2016 he is a visiting scholar at Georgetown University’s Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics. Xavier is deputy editor of the onlin bioethics news service BioEdge.

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