What to call ending your life?
COMMENT: How do we name the act of killing yourself because you are dying?
Every school student reading George Orwell’s 1984 knows words are powerful things. Shape the words and you shape the message.
You can hear it in the 35,000 submissions to Parliament’s Justice select committee on David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill.
For how exactly do we name this act of a terminally ill or suffering person killing themselves. Under the Bill, a person can apply for medically assisted dying under a set of conditions. First, if they are terminally ill and likely to die within six months. Or, they are suffering a grievous condition, in irreversible decline and unbearable suffering. But they must also be able to understand the nature of assisted dying.
The title of the bill looks away from death. It frames its intentions. This is instead “end of life choice”.
But the clauses of the bill set out the way to death in practical, straightforward language. The patient talks to their doctor. The doctor gets a second medical opinion. You sign a form declaring you want to die. You and your doctor discuss the how and when. You set a date and the way you want to die. When the time comes, you administer the fatal dose or your doctor does it for you. You make your end of life choice and you die.
In many ways, the practical, detached clauses of the bill are more confronting than the submissions on it.
But what should we call this process of dying?
At one end, some who oppose the bill call it “suicide” or “assisted suicide”. And they are right. Suicide is the taking of one’s life. This bill sets out how to take one’s life. The word “suicide” sits there, hard and unyielding, like a rock you have to clamber over.
At the other end, some who favour the bill call it “assisted dying”. And they, too, are right. The emphasis lies on the dying. People who are terminally ill or suffering grievous conditions, decline and suffering can apply. They want to hasten the moment.
Each phrase frames the debate differently, shapes the view of the act.
There are other competing names. “Euthanasia” and “voluntary euthanasia” seem to have waned in use, despite being a precise definition of the act. Perhaps the word’s clinical coldness counts against it in emotional debates.
There are some who prefer the straightforward “killing yourself” in their submissions, though this seems to miss the fact someone has to help you.
In writing about this bill for Newsroom, I have faced the same linguistic difficulties. I have tried to remain fair to all views while reading the submissions. Yet to adopt one way of describing the act of death is to adopt its emotional freight. I see that most often I have used “euthanasia” and “assisted dying”.
Yet there is one usage I baulked at - acronyms. One is MAID for “medical aid in dying” and is used throughout the submission of the End of Life Choice Society of New Zealand and some supporters. Another is PAS or physician-assisted suicide and often used by medical opponents of the Bill. My journalist suspicion of acronyms as hiding difficult words runs too deep. They may be useful shortenings but not in this case, on this subject. I found myself mentally replacing every “MAID” and "PAS" with a spelled out phrase so that dying came back into view.
The idea of euthanasia or assisted dying or assisted suicide is a contested, difficult area. On all sides there are good people trying to describe the outcome they see. They use words to grapple with a situation where there are few good words.
Shape the words and you shape the act.
Earlier articles in this series:
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