Euthanasia and the related topic of physician-assisted suicide are extremely controversial moral and legal issues throughout the world. While proponents suggest that a painless death may be preferable to some people that have a prolonged, eventually fatal illness or permanently debilitating condition, opponents cite the intrinsic value of life and the possibility that legalizing euthanasia could lead to severe misuse by doctors. The debate on the ethics behind euthanasia will likely never be settled, as few moral debates ever return a universal agreement. As of 2010, a few countries have laws allowing legalized euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, including Albania, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, as well as some US states. Some other countries, including Japan and Columbia, have contradictory laws and court precedent on the issue.
It is important to understand the difference between euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide when discussing the legal status internationally. Physician assisted suicide refers to a situation in which a doctor may prescribe lethal drugs but the patient is responsible for taking them. Euthanasia, on the other hand, is when a health professional intentionally gives a patient a lethal dose in order to end the patient's life. Not all countries outlaw both forms; Germany has had legal physician-assisted suicide since the 18th century, but direct euthanasia is illegal.
Albania was one of the first European nations to allow legalized euthanasia in 1999. Passive euthanasia, where the patient is unable to give consent due to a condition like a coma, is also legal given the agreement of three family members. The law has remained controversial within the country, however, largely due to the major influence of the Catholic Church in Albania.
Belgium and the Netherlands both legalized euthanasia in the early 21st century. Both countries had a long, if informal, rule of not legally prosecuting doctors who provided euthanasia services to terminally ill patients. By instating a legalized policy, proponents suggested that better medical records could be kept and that physicians would be required to adhere to certain standards of care when helping patients commit suicide.
Luxembourg passed legalized euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide laws in 2008. The country at the time was under the governance of a conservative Christian prime minister, which resulted in an extremely close vote on the measure. According to the new law, patients seeking aid with suicide must get consent from two doctors and have a terminal or chronic debilitating illness.
With such a delicate issue, some countries have left legal status of the issue extremely unclear. Columbia's highest court passed a legalized euthanasia law in 1997, but the decision has never been ratified by Columbia's Congress. In Japan, despite a clear law against euthanasia, a significant court decision in 1962 laid out six criteria that a physician must meet to perform the service for a patient legally.