Assumptions and moral understanding of the wish to hasten death: a philosophical review of qualitative studies

Med Health Care Philos. 2018 Mar;21(1):63-75. doi: 10.1007/s11019-017-9785-y.


It is not uncommon for patients with advanced disease to express a wish to hasten death (WTHD). Qualitative studies of the WTHD have found that such a wish may have different meanings, none of which can be understood outside of the patient's personal and sociocultural background, or which necessarily imply taking concrete steps to ending one's life. The starting point for the present study was a previous systematic review of qualitative studies of the WTHD in advanced patients. Here we analyse in greater detail the statements made by patients included in that review in order to examine their moral understandings and representations of illness, the dying process and death. We identify and discuss four classes of assumptions: (1) assumptions related to patients' moral understandings in terms of dignity, autonomy and authenticity; (2) assumptions related to social interactions; (3) assumptions related to the value of life; and (4) assumptions related to medicalisation as an overarching context within which the WTHD is expressed. Our analysis shows how a philosophical perspective can add to an understanding of the WTHD by taking into account cultural and anthropological aspects of the phenomenon. We conclude that the knowledge gained through exploring patients' experience and moral understandings in the end-of-life context may serve as the basis for care plans and interventions that can help them experience their final days as a meaningful period of life, restoring some sense of personal dignity in those patients who feel this has been lost.

Keywords: Autonomy; Dignity; Medicalization; Qualitative studies; Values; Wish to hasten death.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Euthanasia / ethics*
  • Euthanasia / psychology
  • Humans
  • Morals*
  • Personal Autonomy
  • Philosophy, Medical*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Social Values
  • Terminally Ill / psychology