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A spade is a spade: why correct language is so important in debates over assisted suicide

by | Aug 23, 2016

By Paul Russell, Executive Director, Hope Australia

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible… Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” — George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” (1946)

suicide-prevention3Some matters of state and public interest can stand the occasional euphemism or fuzzy acronym. But in a debate that most literally is about life and death, there’s too much at stake to tolerate such fudging.

We’ve all heard them: phrases like ‘dignity in dying’, ‘assisted dying’ and ‘medically assisted dying’ (or MAD! Just think about it!) just to name a few. If we were to trace these euphemisms to their origins on a time line we would see clearly a progression or, perhaps more accurately, an evolution that stretches back to organisations once upon a time more accurately called ‘Voluntary Euthanasia’ or ‘Hemlock’ societies.

At the time George Orwell wrote his famous essay he must have been thinking of other examples. The adoption of euphemisms to disguise what is and always has been about doctors killing people or the aiding and abetting of suicide by the medical profession did not really surface until much later when the term ‘right-to-die’ first came into use in the 1970s.

Thankfully, not everyone has been led gullibly to adopt such euphemisms. A recent example from a television station in Denver, Colorado is a shining example of clear thinking. A ballot initiative has been registered in that state for assisted suicide laws.

The newscaster at KUSA 9News explains:

“Supporters of that law have asked 9NEWS not to call it assisted “suicide.” They’d rather we call it “medical aid in dying.”

After explaining that KUSA had not taken up a position on the ballot initiative, they moved to explain why they’re calling a spade a spade:

“We have a duty to tell you about it in simple, direct language. That’s why we’re not going to stop using the word “suicide.”

“Supporters of the measure argue the word “suicide” is too friendly to the opposition because it may make you think of someone who ends their life for no good reason.

“In contrast, the proposed law does require a reason: you’d need to be diagnosed with a terminal illness to get a life-ending prescription.

“But in plain English, that’s still “suicide.”

“Merriam-Webster defines suicide as:

“The act or an instance of taking one’s own life voluntarily and intentionally especially by a person of years of discretion and of sound mind.”

“The Oxford Dictionary puts it more simply:

“The action of killing oneself intentionally” goes with:

“The intentional taking of one’s own life.”

“All three definitions have something in common: they don’t depend in any way on the reason a person chooses to end their life, just that they do so on purpose.”

This last point should have suicide prevention organisations in Australia squirming in their seats. Why? Because by their silence they seem to refuse to accept the fact that assisted suicide is suicide.

A respected colleague attended the Suicide Prevention Australia National Conference in Canberra in July and, while supportive of this significant event, noted some significant concerns:

“I was not the only person to comment that despite the spike in suicide numbers in the 65 and over age group there was not one presentation during the two and a half days dealing with that subject.”

“One of my specific interests was the way in which public promotion of euthanasia and assisted suicide might be having a cross-over effect among those with suicide ideation. Despite selecting ‘assisted suicide’ as an area of interest from the fourteen subjects on offer there were no presentations about it and nor were there any informal get-togethers arranged for others who may have had an interest in the subject.”

Just as suicide holds no respect for persons, suicide prevention needs to be a whole of society concern. Any differentiation between types of suicides or age and other cohorts or reasons for suicide suggests a tolerance of suicide; a dangerous mixed message that young people, in particular, are quick to identify.

It would work to reinforce the notion held by many in the disability community that the advent of euthanasia and assisted suicide would create a two-tiered approach; some get suicide prevention – others get suicide assistance.

And while the silence may be deafening on that front, the use of euphemisms in the euthanasia and assisted suicide debate is far more subversive and the insistence that the media use these alternate phrases, downright sneaky and ultimately dangerous.

Perhaps the ultimate example was on display on the ABC TV program Lateline [] recently in an interview with Mr. Denton conducted by Emma Alberici. Denton is the most recent celebrity to adopt the euthanasia and assisted suicide cause in Australia.

Alberici: “Once a law says that it’s okay to kill someone, can the terms, conditions and safeguards around that ever entirely protect the vulnerable and entirely eradicate the possibility for abuse?”

Denton: “First of all, have you ever heard of a perfect law being written anywhere?”

Alberici: “But they’re not all a matter of life and death.”

Denton: “Okay. Secondly, let me talk about the use of the word kill: the vast majority of the people these laws apply to are already dying. That’s what it’s about. The overwhelming majority of people who these laws have applied to overseas are dying and have died of cancer. It is their disease that’s killing them. What this law is for – a very strictly written law, following very clear criteria to protect doctors from prosecution should they follow the criteria – what this law is for is to assist them to die in a merciful way. Not to kill them; they are going to die anyway.”

“But we’re all going to die, Your Honour!” said no accused from the dock.

Alberici’s question was about euthanasia. The Oxford dictionary defines it as: “The painless killing of a patient suffering from an incurable and painful disease or in an irreversible coma.” Get that: killing.

Denton’s is an Orwellian, ‘defence of the indefensible’.

You can call it anything you like but it is, inescapably, killing.

Editor’s note. This appeared at

Categories: Assisted Suicide