The Forbidden Word

Names Matter in the Euthanasia Debate

The majority of people in America, as well as in Canada and in the UK, now support the legalization of doctor-assisted suicide—euthanasia, or “assisted dying.” It’s sad, but not surprising. As Melanie Phillips wrote in a recent piece for The London Times, assisted dying is now being treated by the Left as the next step in the march of progress.

At the moment, most of the rhetoric is focused on troubling, extreme cases where the patient is trapped in agonizing suffering with no apparent hope of recovery. But it’s unlikely to stop with that. Look at Canada, where restrictions on euthanasia have been progressively rolled back since it was legalized a few years ago. The extreme cases are a rhetorical tool, used to normalize euthanasia, but they’re not the underlying reason for promoting euthanasia.

Extreme Autonomy

Indeed, there are some activists already vocally insisting that dying is a universal human right that should be accessible to all. A recent piece in Mercator by Michael Cook calls attention to some radical activist elements that are advocating for anyone anywhere to be allowed to get help killing themselves for any reason—even “stupid” reasons. (“I don’t want to know why people want to die,” one activist says. “I do not give a hoot.”) Cook points out that once you have accepted the thesis that people should be allowed to die if they really want to, there are no logical stopping points to keep the slope un-slippery. He writes: “The logic of assisted suicide and euthanasia is based on extreme autonomy: my life is my business. From that point of view, the “safeguards” touted by supporters of legalisation are not guardrails but prison bars.”

This is probably true. But it may take time to break society free from that prison, and in fact, thinkers on the Left seem to be surprised that the march of progress is taking so long. In an essay from this June titled “Assisted dying is on nobody’s bucket list – but preventing it is deeply unjust,” Guardian columnist Zoe Williams expresses her perplexity that society hasn’t already moved past its hang-ups about euthanasia. She says: “…I assumed 10 years ago that the incremental march of reason would change the law on its own… But a decade on, reason hasn’t marched anywhere and I’ve now seen a lot more of the realities of old age.”

That’s because, for all the aura of inevitability and inexorability, the march of progress isn’t really automatic. In fact, progress doesn’t really march at all; progress is what happens when people march—in a good direction, or in a bad one. So, with the realization that the time is ripe and that it won’t happen on its own, there has come a barrage of pro-euthanasia propaganda pieces. The Guardian has kept up a steady stream of them this year, including an interview with a pro-euthanasia rabbi who argues that religious leaders who don’t accept euthanasia are “out of step with their flocks” (which may well be true – but the thing about shepherds is, they’re supposed to …well,  herd), and a no-holds-barred polemic by Polly Toynbee (who, I feel compelled to note, hates Aslan) titled “Today, 17 people will likely die in unimaginable pain. Here’s how you can help stop that.”

(Can you guess how?)

Don’t Say “Kill”

As a rule, the authors of these pieces avoid the word “kill.” Melanie Philips called out this moral cowardice. Her words are worth quoting:  

[T]here’s a swell of support for physician-procured death because of two things. The first is the unscrupulous campaign featuring stories of appalling suffering from terminal illness, a number of which have been distorted in order to terrify people. The second is the deeply cynical switch in terminology to “dying” to describe a process by which someone procures another person’s death. Dying happens to us all. Euthanasia or assisting someone to die are euphemisms for killing them or helping them kill themselves. But of course, the word “killing” has pretty lousy PR. That’s why the Voluntary Euthanasia Society cannily changed its name to the unchallengeable Dignity in Dying.

Words matter, and there are some words that can wreak havoc on a cause if they are spoken often enough aloud. Since thought-leaders on the Left have apparently decided that it’s time to make a strong push for a Right to Die, they have set about defining the terms to suit their goal.

I don’t actually think that “assisted dying” is the final naming solution. It has the word “dying” in it, after all, and dying is icky. Not as icky as “killing,” but still icky. No, they need something with the Orwellian palatability of “gender-affirming care.” Something like “life-affirming care.” I’m sure they’ll figure it out.

“It Matters That We Speak Plainly”

As always, if you get to define the terms, you’ve already nearly won the debate. Words really do matter. This is apparent in a 2018 Gallup poll which showed that Americans’ stated opinions on assisted suicide depended on how the question was phrased. (To their credit, the pollsters explicitly surfaced this issue.)

The question “When a person has a disease that cannot be cured, do you think doctors should be allowed by law to end the patient's life by some painless means if the patient and his or her family request it?” yielded 72 percent in favor.

The question “When a person has a disease that cannot be cured and is living in severe pain, do you think doctors should or should not be allowed by law to assist the patient to commit suicide if the patient requests it?” yielded 65 percent in favor. Sixty-five percent is still a large majority, but it’s striking that simply including the word “suicide” caused such a significant drop in support.

The question is: how much would support have dropped if the question had simply said “kill the patient”? We can’t know because the Gallup poll didn’t include a version with the k-word.

What this shows is that a good portion of Americans don’t really know what they believe about euthanasia. That portion of the population is moldable. With the right choice of terms, the right selection of news stories and personal anecdotes, the right color scheme in the propaganda videos, they can be conditioned to accept the new narrative.

But the reality won’t change. Killing will still be killing. And acquiescing to killing by a different name will create a callousness to the act itself. When you kill, and call it “assisted dying,” it is still killing that you are becoming inured to. So in the end, the true names may even be allowed, and no one will care.

You notice this phenomenon if you talk to serious pro-abortion advocates. The accusation that abortion is killing a baby doesn’t really land, because it is beside the point. I remember a conversation with one pro-choice young woman in my college English class a few years ago. I asked her how pro-choice people like herself drew a hard line between a child shortly before birth and shortly after. Under pro-choice logic, why couldn’t an underprivileged or inconvenient newborn be aborted? She told me quite frankly that she thought that killing a newborn baby was in fact not as bad as killing an adult woman, because the value of a person comes from their social connections. Newborns have fewer social connections than adults, so killing them is less important.

Melanie Philips writes:

The legal barrier against euthanasia and assisted suicide is there for a purpose. It is a line in the sand that prevents us slipping into a culture of death-dealing. Crossing it would not produce a culture of compassion. It would brutalise an entire society.

In the words of the late anti-communist dissident Maria Witner: it matters that we speak plainly. And it’s better to do it now, while words like “killing” and “suicide” still have moral meaning to most people. Let’s call things by their true names, while there are still ears that can hear them. Killing hopeless people is just killing hopeless people. That’s all.

The day may come when society is so dulled to good and evil that even a direct confrontation with the truth will not cause unease. “Yes, we’re killing them,” people will say, bemused. “So what?”

But I don’t think we’ve gotten there quite yet.

Further Reading

Daniel Witt (BS Ecology, BA History) is a writer and English teacher living in Amman, Jordan. He enjoys playing the mandolin, reading weird books, and foraging for edible plants.

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