Truth, Euphemism, and Physician-Assisted Suicide

Feb 21, 2020 by

Physician-assisted suicide pithily and precisely names the act of a doctor prescribing a lethal drug at his terminally ill patient’s request. However, its advocates reject this name and propose euphemisms in its place, such as “death with dignity” and “end of life option.” These amount to advertisements for the disputed practice and ought to be rejected as imprecise, inaccurate, and jargonistic.

In his classic comedy routine entitled “They Are Only Words,” George Carlin lampoons Americans’ tendency toward euphemism. He says:

You can’t be afraid of words that speak the truth. I don’t like words that hide the truth. I don’t like words that conceal reality. I don’t like euphemisms or euphemistic language. And American English is loaded with euphemisms. Because Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent a kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it. And it gets worse with every generation. For some reason it just keeps getting worse.

Carlin—who loved to read and, famously, to joke about language—offers as one example of this declination into euphemism, the succinct, accurate, almost onomatopoeic World-War-I phrase “shell shock,” which sequentially becomes “battle fatigue” (in WWII), “operational exhaustion” (in the Korean War), and finally “post-traumatic stress disorder” (“PTSD,” in Vietnam and subsequent wars). Carlin notes that as language deteriorates, terms meant to grasp and help us treat anguish—such as shell shock—become longer, more abstract, and sterile while obscuring suffering. This leads to “pain buried under jargon.” Most troubling, Carlin notes that euphemistic terminology obstructs real therapy. He plausibly claims that had “shell shock” still been in use in their era, the distress of Vietnam veterans would have been more effectively treated.

Euphemisms for Suicide

Carlin’s insights come to mind as one reflects on the current linguistic campaign against the honest phrase “physician-assisted suicide” (PAS). Of course, “suicide” originates from the Latin “sui” meaning “of one’s self” and “cidium” meaning “a killing,” hence “to kill one’s self.” As it clearly, succinctly, and accurately indicates, PAS refers to a doctor helping a patient to kill himself. Specifically, as practiced in American jurisdictions that now permit the practice, PAS refers to a physician prescribing a lethal drug at the request of a competent, adult, terminally ill patient, who would then kill himself by taking the drug. Where legal, PAS has numerous requirements. For example, the patient must be a competent, terminally ill adult; expected to die within six months; not clinically depressed; a resident of the state; and so on. Put to the side these criteria and the wisdom (or lack thereof) of legalizing PAS. Rather, consider the terms currently used to describe this act.

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