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.

About the Association

The Australasian Association of Bioethics and Health Law (AABHL) was formed in 2009.

It encourages open discussion and debate on a range of bioethical issues, providing a place where people can ask difficult questions about ideas and practices associated with health and illness, biomedical research and human values.

The AABHL seeks to foster a distinctive Australasian voice in bioethics, and provide opportunities for international engagement through its membership, journal and conferences.

Members come from all the contributing humanities, social science and science disciplines that make up contemporary bioethics.

Many members have cross-disciplinary interests and all seek to broaden the dialogues in which all members of the wider community ultimately have an interest.

The AABHL is a supportive, creative and challenging community that provides a rich source of continuing academic refreshment and renewal.

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