Ken Connor

Even the most despicable ideas can be made palatable when euphemisms are used to spin them. That's why abortion advocates call themselves "pro-choice" rather than "pro abortion." It's also why they talk about "terminating a pregnancy" rather than "killing a baby." Controlling the language not only controls the argument, it often determines the outcome of the argument.

Proponents of euthanasia understand the power of language in shaping debate. Therefore, instead of using the term "physician-assisted suicide" to describe the practice they advocate, they use euphemisms like "death with dignity" and "end of life choices" to sugar coat the reality of the killings they have in view. They know the term "physician-assisted suicide" does not poll well, so they try to disguise the real nature of what it is they are championing. Since people are inherently uncomfortable with the notion that those trained in the healing arts would aid and abet the killing of their patients, euphemisms are used to conceal the true nature of what's involved. Everyone wants to die with dignity. Thus, like abortion, killing oneself with a doctor's assistance becomes just another "choice."

Many in the medical community are complicit in this deception, and, although doctors were once trained to "do no harm," they are now fostering it through the deceptive use of rhetoric. A recent New York Times article, written by Jane Gross, describes one such deception. The article explains that a new practice called "slow medicine" has gained support in medical communities in recent years. The goal of slow medicine is to encourage "physicians to put on the brakes when considering care that may have high risks and limitedrewards for the elderly, and it educates patients and families how to push back against emergency room trips and hospitalizations designed for those with treatable illnesses…." [emphasis added]. Thus, slow medicine seeks to aid doctors, families, and patients in resisting medical efforts to cure treatable illnesses.

When first confronted with the slow medicine approach, patients understandably find it offensive. The New York Times article reports that Kendal at Hanover, a retirement community which encourages the slow medicine approach, "begins by asking newcomers whether they want to be resuscitated or go to the hospital and under what circumstances." Brenda Jordan, a nurse practitioner at Kendal, explains, "'They give me an amazingly puzzled look, like "Why wouldn't I?"'" This reaction is completely natural and in keeping with any patient who values their own life. Even Dr. Tom Rosenthal, UCLA's chief medical officer and a believer in slow medicine, admits, "The culture has a built-in bias that everything that can be done will be done."

To overcome that instinctive cultural bias, the Kendal staff steps in to explain things to its patients. While the explanation is couched in quality of life terms and foreboding statistics, underneath lies a utilitarian concern never overtly addressed. In her article, Gross explains, "The costliest patients—the elderly with chronic illnesses—are the only group with universal health coverage under Medicare, leading to huge federal expenditures that experts agree are unsustainable as boomers age." Thus, there are financial benefits that flow from every elderly person's decision to "die with dignity."

Recent experience in The Netherlands illustrates where deceptive language about euthanasia can lead. When The Netherlands first legalized euthanasia, it was only allowed in rare cases of "intolerable suffering." "The guidelines were designed specifically to keep assisted suicide occurrences few and far between by establishing demanding conditions that had to be met, at the risk of criminal prosecution." Yet doctors soon began interpreting these guidelines broadly, and the government and the courts did almost nothing to prevent it. Now the Netherlands, under its euthanasia law, allows the killing of infants with non-life threatening birth defects. Additionally, Dutch doctors are euthanizing patients without their permission. Repeated studies have demonstrated that 900-1000 patients experience "termination without request or consent" every year. The Dutch government usually turns a blind eye to this illegal practice as well.

If The Netherlands is any indication, the citizens of the United States ought to guard aggressively against the rhetorical gyrations of euthanasia's proponents. No matter how flowery their language is, they promote the killing of human beings. They propose a "right to die" but, in actuality, they want the right to kill.


Ken Connor

Ken Connor is Chairman of the Center for a Just Society in Washington, DC.