The power of words

Words matter a lot in the public debate over the legalisation of euthanasia and assisted suicide. Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide law, the model for most subsequent American legislation, is called the “Death with Dignity Act”. The text of the law avoids using the words suicide or euthanasia. Academic studies have shown that the public reacts positively to phrases like “dying with dignity” or “assisted dying” and negatively to “suicide” or “killing” – which is undoubtedly why opinion polls invariably avoid the “S” word.

Interestingly, the Grand Old Man of American assisted suicide, Derek Humphry, discusses the issue in a recent post at his Assisted-Dying Blog. Mr Humphry has a lot of experience. He is the founder of the Hemlock Society and author of Final Exit, a how-to manual for people who wanted to kill themselves. He has been “serving the rights of competent, terminally ill adults for 30 years”.

Mr Humphry is a straight shooter. He says that the assisted suicide movement did suffer when Dr Jack Kevorkian helped 130 people to die with various “suicide machines”. Ever since, supporters avoided the taint of the word “suicide”.

But Humphry says, “Personally, I don’t think ‘physician-assisted suicide’ is a detrimental term in itself. It means a self-chosen death with medical aid. Because we are all surprised and saddened by persons who precipitately kill themselves doesn’t — to me — make suicide a loaded word. There have been suicides throughout human history; the Bible speaks of four such, without condemnation. As the old cliché goes: ‘Call a spade a spade.’”  

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet 


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