WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE!
A continuing series
the terms we use in the
Whenever the news media cover any attempts to pass
an Oregon-style Death with Dignity Act,
the bill is described as legalizing "physician-assisted suicide".
Sometimes this is varied to call it an "assisted-suicide bill".
Washington state also calls its law Death with
In California it was proposed as a Compassionate Choices bill.
When other states propose similar laws,
they ought to consider more honest titles.
The word "death" does
appear in the title of the Oregon law.
They did not say "self-deliverance" or "peaceful passing".
But "dignity" does not get to the heart of the matter.
Oregon Death by Lethal Prescription Act"
would have been accurate—but less attractive.
Oregon Assisted-Suicide Act" would also be
but many people would oppose it merely because of the word
And the Act says that using its provisions does not constitute a
What about "The
Oregon Voluntary Death Act"?
Such a title would invite exploration to see just how
differs from irrational
See an seminal
Death be an "Irrational Suicide" or a "Voluntary Death"?
California used a different expression entirely:
The California Compassionate Choices Act.
But someone who knew nothing about the proposal
would not know that it is a bill to allow
a life-ending prescription to be written by a physician.
There are many human problems calling for compassion
and many human options among which we must exercise choice.
SUICIDE" has become such a common expression
that it has been adopted by the Library of Congress
as one of its official subject headings.
Now, even those who object to such a designation
are compelled to list their books under a heading they dislike.
The advocates of the right-to-die are not blameless
in this matter.
Many of the books favoring the right-to-die
also use this expression: "physician-assisted suicide".
In fact, it has become such a common expression
that it has created an acronym: PAS.
We use short-hand expressions for ideas familiar to
But we should remember that we are always addressing
at least a few
people for whom the concepts are completely new.
We should not become inured to our own language,
so that we ignore how our words might resonate in the minds
of those who hear or read such concepts for the very first time.
What might "physician-assisted
suicide" mean on
If a doctor buys a gun for a suicidal person and shows him how to use
is this "physician-assisted suicide"?
If a physician suggests to a patient that he could end his misery
by jumping out the window of the hospital,
would that be considered a "physician-assisted suicide"?
And why "physician-assisted
Why not "priest-assisted suicide"?
Even closer to the truth, we never hear of
Was "physician-assisted suicide" invented
by the opposition?
On some levels it seems quite repugnant
for our doctors to assist us in
And most professional associations of physicians
have opposed right-to-die bills, at least initially.
Is a part of this opposition because doctors
do not want to help anyone commit
Also, most proposals permitting voluntary death
have a clause that explicitly says that this form of chosen death
will not constitute a suicide or an assisted suicide for
—such as life-insurance claims,
or any laws that refer to "suicide", "assisted suicide", etc.
ALTERNATIVES TO "PHYSICIAN-ASSISTED SUICIDE"
If we find it necessary to refer to the physician at
we might better call this practice "physician-assisted dying",
"physician-assisted death", or "physician aid-in-dying"
Of these three "physician aid-in-dying" is best
because whenever we begin the expression:
the next word that comes to mind is "suicide".
death" seems another good alternative.
This expression does use
the once-taboo word "death" plainly and simply.
We are really talking about the end of the life of a human
And the word "voluntary" is well known to mean freely chosen.
In German the comparable expression means literally "free death".
And its opposite means "self-murder".
If we decide to use the expression "voluntary death",
we will have to distinguish it clearly from irrational suicide.
Here are the four easy distinctions to make:
irrational suicide / voluntary death
(1) harmful / helpful
(2) irrational / rational
(3) capricious / well-planned
(4) regrettable / admirable.
more deeply, read:
Will this Death be an “Irrational Suicide” or a “Voluntary Death"?
When a physician is actually involved
process of choosing a voluntary death,
it could be called "physician-assisted
or "physician aid in
But, of course, other people besides doctors can help us
when we are choosing a voluntary death.
So perhaps we ought not
to refer to the physician at all.
Then it would simply be "voluntary
death" if chosen by the patient alone.
Or it would be "assisted
if the patient needs some help from others.
Can we think of other positive alternatives to
What about "assisted dying",
"aid in dying",
"directed dying", "patient-directed dying"?
Instead of "death with dignity" what about "choice in dying"?
How do these titles sound:
"The Choice-in-Dying Act"?
Or "The Voluntary Death Act"?
Or "The End-of-Life Choices Act"?
If we want to acknowledge that life-ending decisions
are being made,
we should avoid
such expressions as:
"physician-assisted suicide" and "assisted suicide".
We will need to work very carefully
to keep the mass media from using such expressions.
And we will help our cause a great deal
if we encourage the public to use more accurate expressions.
We would never ask our doctors to help us "commit
Created April 3, 2006; revised
November 2006; 3-8-2007; 3-15-2007; 3-21-2007; 3-29-2007; 4-4-2007;
1-18-2012; 1-19-2012; 2-12-2012; 2-22-2012; 3-29-2012; 7-18-2012;
This critique of the expression "physician-assisted
is also Chapter 15 of How to Die:
Safeguards Life-Ending Decisions,
entitled Would We Ask
Doctors to Help us "Commit Suicide"?