Easing the passing

'Easing the passing' was Dr Bodkin Adams' phrase to explain giving morphine to the dying; he was acquitted of murder. What if we give large doses of analgesics to relieve suffering, knowing that it may hasten death? Our intention is not to kill. Is this criminal?

The law normally includes within the definition of 'intention' consequences which are inevitable. If you get up at night to open a window, knowing that this will inevitably wake the baby, in law you intended to wake the baby. Therefore if you give painkillers in doses which could be expected to shorten life, although your primary intention was to relieve suffering, normally your intention would be deemed to include shortening life. However, in the Bodkin Adams case, a general practitioner who administered morphine to sick elderly patients was charged with their murder, and Devlin J directed the jury that when he cannot give a patient back their health, a doctor 'is still entitled to do all that is proper and necessary to relieve pain and suffering even if the measure he takes will incidentally shorten life' (Williams 19.8.3). Therefore this would seem to be legal.

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