The role of critical care nurses in euthanasia and assisted suicide

N Engl J Med. 1996 May 23;334(21):1374-9. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199605233342106.


Background: Euthanasia and assisted suicide has received considerable attention recently in medical literature, public discussion, and proposed state legislation. Almost all the discussion in this area has focused on the role of physicians. However, nurses--especially critical care nurses--may be in a special position to understand the wishes of patients and to act on this understanding.

Methods: I mailed a survey to 1600 critical care nurses in the United States, asking them to describe anonymously any requests from patients, family members or others acting for patients (surrogates), or physicians to perform euthanasia or assisted suicide, as well as their own practices.

Results: Of the 1139 nurses who responded (71 percent), 852 said they practices exclusively in intensive care units for adults in the United States. Of these 852 nurses, 141 (17 percent) reported that they had received requests from patients or family members to perform euthanasia or assist in suicide; 129 (16 percent of those for whom data were available) reported that they had engaged in euthanasia; and an additional 36 (4 percent) reported that they had hastened a patient's death by only pretending to provide life-sustaining treatment ordered by a physician. Some nurses reported engaging in these practices without the request for advance knowledge of physicians or others. The method of euthanasia most commonly described was the administration of a high dose of an opiate to a terminally ill patient.

Conclusions: As public debate continues about euthanasia and assisted suicide, some critical care nurses in the United States are engaging in the practice.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Critical Care
  • Ethics, Nursing
  • Euthanasia / statistics & numerical data*
  • Euthanasia, Active*
  • Euthanasia, Active, Voluntary*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interprofessional Relations
  • Male
  • Nurse's Role*
  • Nurses*
  • Physicians
  • Professional-Patient Relations
  • Stress, Psychological
  • Suicide, Assisted / statistics & numerical data*
  • United States