Euphemisms for Euthanasia and False Dilemmas

By June 17, 2014 Recent News

The Witherspoon Institute 17 June 2014
Jacqueline C. Harvey, PhD, a bioethicist whose research focuses primarily on end-of-life legislation, is an Associate Scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute.
When Vermont became the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide through the legislature in summer 2013, I predicted here at Public Discourse that proponents would more aggressively target other New England states to spread their agenda in 2014. Therefore, it was not surprising that New England faced a powerful onslaught of voluntary euthanasia bills within the past few months, particularly in New Hampshire and Connecticut. While New Hampshire overwhelmingly voted down the proposal by a margin of 219 to 66, Connecticut legislators allowed the bill to die a quiet death in committee.
I was among the last of over 100 witnesses to testify on the Connecticut bill in a hearing that lasted over ten hours. At the hearing, I observed the latest strategies employed by euthanasia advocates to sell suicide to the catastrophically ill. These can be ultimately whittled down to two primary strategies: first, wordplay that attempts to soften the truth about assisted suicide; and second, false dilemmas, which suggest that suicide is inevitable and that death by poison is preferable to other methods.
Sanitizing Suicide: Killing as Compassion
Physician-assisted suicide advocates learned in the early days of their crusade that people do not like the word “suicide.” Prior to Vermont, states that decriminalized the practice did so through carefully crafted ballot initiatives that glossed over the academic literature and its concerns about state-sanctioned killing. These campaigns used clever slogans to suggest that assisted suicide is a positive act, a personal choice, and a matter of compassion for the dying. The Hemlock Society even rebranded itself, changing its name to Compassion & Choices. This suggests that offering an ill person poison is compassionate and that suicide is a legitimate choice for persons with terminal diagnoses. Word choice is critical: a 2013 poll showed a steep 19-point difference when people were asked if they support “assisted suicide” rather than “ending a patient’s life.”
Although the act is the same, the perception of euthanasia is shrewdly euphemized as “aid in dying” or “death with dignity” to make what is tragic and cruel appear helpful, empowering, and even compassionate. Conversely, such euphemisms imply that pain control and palliative care are somehow lacking in empathy.