George Orwell comes up a lot lately. The term “Orwellian” is ubiquitous in current social commentary. As such, I won’t use the hackneyed term in this post—although I will reference the word “apophasis”.
This is, after all, a post about the use of words. In particular, the use of the words “assisted death.” As a philosopher, I have been taught to care about accuracy and precision in the use of terms, and “assisted death” kills me on so many levels. I would swallow a bad pun any day over the lifeless phrase “assisted dying.”
I first heard the terms “assisted death” and “assisted dying” less than a year ago on CBC radio, soon after Canada’s Supreme Court struck down the laws against assisted suicide. At one point, the CBC host used the more common term “assisted suicide” and was quickly corrected by the advocate being interviewed. —“‘Assisted death’,” the advocate interjected. “Oh, I’m sorry,” the host apologized. “For those seeking assisted death, what do you…”
I laughed. The term seemed like a ridiculous, Orwelli—er, I mean—rhetorically self-serving euphemism. In place of a perfectly clear term (“assisted suicide”), we now have a vague, nebulous term (“assisted death”). “Assisted suicide” is clear enough: if someone kills themselves, but got help along the way, that’s assisted suicide. But “assisted death”? What does the term mean? And to what practice does the term apply?
The term seems far too broad. On one hand, every patient in palliative care is going to have medical assistance in dying. Nurses provide bedside care. Doctors provide pain medication. Family provides love and comfort. The express purpose of palliative care is to provide assistance to the dying, making their final days and hours as comfortable as possible. Is palliative care “assisted dying”? If we say “no,” what is the relevant difference? The relevant difference between palliative care and “assisted dying” is the intentional action by the patient to kill themselves (otherwise known as suicide), and the intentional action by the doctors to help them.
On the other hand, every murder victim is, in one sense, the victim of “assisted death.” Everyone dies. Charles Manson’s victims just happened to receive some assistance. Of course this is absurd. Users of the term “assisted death” would protest at such usage. But what is the relevant difference, say, between a Russian billionaire who eats a poisoned Tic-Tac and a cancer patient who swallows a poisonous pill prescribed by a doctor? Again, the relevant difference is the intentional action by the patient to kill themselves (otherwise known as suicide).
Given the vagueness of the term “assisted death,” we should simply stick with “assisted suicide.”
Euphemisms have their appropriate uses. I am not disturbed, for instance, by the phrase
“going to the washroom.” In fact, I prefer it to more literal alternatives. However, the use of “assisted death” in the context of the current public debate seems to have been manufactured out of thin air for inappropriate purposes—namely, to obscure reference to the act of killing oneself (admittedly, the word “suicide” has negative connotations, but, it should be noted that the initial court victory in Canada was won explicitly on the basis that disabled people’s equality under the law was violated because of their inability to commit suicide. Why the squeamishness toward suicide now?), or, perhaps even (if I may indulge in some conspiratorial speculation) to slur the distinction between assisted suicide and euthanasia, making further legal changes to allow for euthanasia easier. While one might sneer at claims of conspiracy and sinister purpose behind the creation of the term “assisted death”, I don’t think one can argue that the term does, in fact, obscure the issue and slur the distinction between assisted suicide and euthanasia. Regardless of the motives behind its use, the hopeless imprecision of the term rules out its use in serious philosophical discussion.
Frankly, I can’t imagine the term ever taking root in philosophy departments, despite its widespread usage in the Canadian media. If I were ever lost in the forest, with no hope of rescue, I wouldn’t play Solitaire. I would start conflating the usage of “assisted suicide” with “euthanasia,” and, for good measure, I would confuse “non-voluntary euthanasia” with “involuntary”. One of my philosophy department colleagues would be there within seconds to demand that I clarify.