discussing the terms we use in the right-to-die debate

"physician-assisted suicide"
"physician aid-in-dying"

    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 Dignity.
In California it was proposed as a Compassionate Choices bill
and later an End-of-Life Option 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.

    "The Oregon Death by Lethal Prescription Act"
would have been accurate—but less attractive.

    "The Oregon Assisted-Suicide Act" would also be more accurate,
but many people would oppose it merely because of the word "suicide".
And the Act says that following its provisions does not constitute a suicide.

    What about "The Oregon Voluntary Death Act"?
Such a title would invite exploration to see just how
voluntary death differs from irrational suicide.
See a seminal essay entitled:
Will this Death be an "Irrational Suicide" or a "Voluntary Death"?

    In California an entirely different expression was proposed:
The California Compassionate Choices Act.
But someone who knew nothing about the proposal
would not guess that this bill would allow a physician
to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs for a terminal patient.
There are many human problems calling for compassion
and many human options among which we must exercise choice.

    "ASSISTED 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 us.
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 first exposure?
If a doctor buys a gun for a suicidal person and shows him how to use it,
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 suicide"?
Why not "priest-assisted suicide"?
Even closer to the truth, we never hear of
"pharmacist-assisted suicide".

    Was "physician-assisted suicide" invented by the opposition?
On some levels it seems quite repugnant
for our doctors to assist us in killing ourselves.
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 suicide?

    Also, most proposals permitting voluntary death
have a provision that explicitly says that this form of chosen death
will not constitute a suicide or an assisted suicide for any purpose
such as life-insurance claims, medical-record keeping,
or any laws that refer to "suicide", "assisted suicide", etc.


    If we find it necessary to refer to the physician at all,
we might better call this practice "physician-assisted dying",
"physician-assisted death"
, or "physician aid-in-dying" (all PAD).
Of these three "physician aid-in-dying" is best
because whenever we begin the expression:
the next word that comes to mind is "suicide".

    "Voluntary 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 being
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.
To distinguish more deeply, read:
Will this Death be an “Irrational Suicide” or a “Voluntary Death"?

    When a physician is actually involved
in the process of choosing a voluntary death,
it could be called "physician-assisted voluntary death"
or "physician aid in voluntary death".
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 voluntary death"
if the patient needs some help from others.

    Can we think of other positive alternatives to "assisted suicide"?
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"?
In 2013 Vermont chose: "The Patient Choice at End of Life 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 suicide".

Created April 3, 2006; revised November 2006; 3-8-2007; 3-15-2007; 3-21-2007; 3-29-2007; 4-4-2007; 1-13-2008;
1-18-2012; 1-19-2012; 2-12-2012; 2-22-2012; 3-29-2012; 7-18-2012; 9-12-2012;
5-3-2013; 5-29-2013; 6-6-2013; 6-21-2013; 7-18-2014; 11-16-2014; 5-1-2015; 7-7-2015;

    This critique of the expression "physician-assisted suicide"
is also Chapter 15 of How to Die: Safeguards Life-Ending Decisions,
entitled  Would We Ask our Doctors to Help us "Commit Suicide"?

    Since you are concerned about the best expressions to use,
perhaps you would like to help improve the whole book:
A Facebook Seminar drawing people from all over the Earth
is discussing each chapter and safeguard from this book.
See the complete description for this seminar:

Join our Facebook Group called:
Safeguards for Life-Ending Decisions:!/groups/107513822718270/

Read about "hastened death""timely death".

Read about "medication""life-ending chemicals".

Read about "euthanasia""gentle death".

Go to Safeguards for Life-Ending Decisions

Go to Portal for the Right-to-Die

Go to the opening page for this website:
An Existential Philosopher's Museum

The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by the University of Minnesota.