Since the Supreme Court of Canada opened the door to assisted suicide (and/or euthanasia depending on how you interpret the loosely worded ruling), I have watched Canadian journalists stumble their way through the language surrounding what the court called “physician assisted dying.” I have to admit that most of the time I feel mildly entertained watching their acrobatics as they shift from the term “euthanasia” to “medically assisted dying” to “dying with dignity” and back again.
But a few weeks ago I read a disturbing article in the National Post that reawakened me to the dangers of surrendering to language that clouds the reality of what euthanasia really is. The article discusses the challenges facing physicians who will be responsible for ending their patients’ lives once euthanasia and assisted suicide are legal. Seeking insight from a doctor who is well versed in ending lives, the article quotes Dr. Rob Jonquiere, former chief executive officer of the Dutch Right to Die Society, as saying, “When I’ve done it, I’ve never felt like I was killing someone, that’s why I don’t like the word ‘killed.’ ’’
Despite what Jonquiere may choose to tell himself, when he gives his patient a lethal injection, he is killing his patient. He is going against the foundational goals of Hippocratic medicine, and he is destroying a life that was entrusted to him. Shying away from the word “killed” does not change that reality.
My blood was boiling after I read Jonquiere’s comments, and my mind raced to a quote my mother posted on her refrigerator following the Supreme Court’s decision. This particular George Orwell gem reads: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” Euthanasia is murder, and it terrifies me to think that Canadians are buying into the lie that it is part of appropriate medical care.
If we are going to have any hope of undoing the damage done by the many euphemisms we have created for killing human beings, I think it is important to look at how we got here. In her book the Ethical Canary, Margaret Somerville explores western attitudes toward death and speaks about the “medical cloak” we have placed on euthanasia.
Over the past several generations, we have increasingly distanced ourselves from the dying process. As little as a hundred years ago, it was common for someone to die at home, surrounded by family. The whole community would have been involved in rituals both before and after death, exposing everyone, young and old, to this natural part of life.
However, as dying moved away from homes and into hospitals, we medicalized death. We turned the dying process into something abnormal that exists outside regular human experience. In the process of doing this, people have become very uncomfortable talking about or contemplating death to the point that the only way to manage our fears about dying is to imagine that we can control the time and manner of our death. And there is no better way to attempt to control death than through euthanasia and assisted suicide.
When euthanasia became a solution to our fears of death, we made it more palatable by placing a “medical cloak” on it. We started calling it “medical aid in dying” and “physician assisted death” so we wouldn’t have to accept the truth that euthanasia is the killing of one person by another. In the process we have warped our healing professions, and have robbed ourselves of the deep mystery of death.
If we are going to have any hope of reversing the tide of euthanasia, those of us who are ready to defend life must continue to use truthful language, even if it means ruffling a few feathers. In addition to insisting on accurate terminology, we must also boldly face death. Death is part of life, and we must not shy away from talking about it.
Most importantly, we must share our stories about death as we work together to discover what makes a good death and how we can bring a good death to others.
Dealing with our mortality is a great challenge, made all the more difficult by a culture that insists on clouding our language surrounding the end of life. The terminology we use has already become politicized, but we can stand for life if we insist on using words that expose the truth of euthanasia. Euthanasia and assisted suicide kill a human person, and there is nothing any politically correct phrase can do to change that.
Deutscher holds an MA in Public Ethics from St. Paul University in Ottawa. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan.