Accurate language matters in this life-and-death debate

This is the second week of essays in our assisted-dying series. All of the first week’s articles can be found here

I have been struck by the use of language in the various articles advocating a change in the law. For example, Steven Fletcher writes that “those who wish to live should be given the opportunity to do so.” Given the opportunity? They have that already. Mr Fletcher tells us that “assisted dying” (the current campaigning euphemism) is about “empathy, compassion, choice, hope and common sense”. Of course it is. But these are qualities that are common currency to both sides of the debate. I can, and do, argue against changing the law on precisely these grounds as well as on others.

Bernhard Sutter writes that “as soon as you officially tell the staff to hasten death, it gets complicated”, the implication being that a doctor who increases a dose of analgesia to relieve pain is unofficially hastening death. This sort of thing may possibly have happened many years ago when the science of analgesia was in its infancy, but it is certainly not the case today. With modern palliative medicine it is possible to relieve most of the physiological distress of the dying process, although Ellen Wiebe’s worrying description of distress in Canada’s hospices suggests they could learn from Britain’s.

Charles Falconer misrepresents the prosecution guidelines on acts of assisting suicide as offering dying people a choice between going to Switzerland for legalised assisted suicide or staying at home and seeking “amateur assistance”. The guidelines do no such thing. They make clear that assistance with suicide given by a doctor to a patient under his or her care raises issues in regard to doctor-patient trust and, as such, must be regarded as an aggravating factor. But they do not encourage any kind of assistance with suicide.

Nor does legalising “assisted dying” reduce other suicides. In the Netherlands unassisted suicides rose by over 20% from 2002 to 2016, despite downward trends in some of its neighbouring countries. Oregon’s unassisted suicides rose by over 28% from 1996 to 2016.

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