Euthanasia in Oregon

By any other name

Feb 15th 2007 | PORTLAND
From The Economist print edition

Just don't mention suicide

IT HAS never been easy to find the right phrase to describe what happens under Oregon's Death With Dignity Act, which allows terminally ill patients to request a lethal prescription from their doctor. Since voters approved the law in 1994, the procedure has generally been known as “physician-assisted suicide”—descriptive, if clunky.

Now, however, advocates are objecting to the word “suicide”. Suicide, they point out, implies a decision to cut short a life that would otherwise continue, whereas terminal patients are simply hastening a death that is already near. They also claim that the term distorts political debate. A Gallup poll in May showed that 69% of Americans support assisted death, but the number drops if the label “suicide” is actually applied. More important, Oregon's law specifically states that the procedure does not constitute “suicide, assisted suicide, mercy-killing or homicide”, at least for legal purposes.

Faced with the possibility of a lawsuit, bureaucrats at the state public health division have cast about for a semantic escape hatch, eventually settling on the phrase “physician-assisted death”. But this, unfortunately, stirred the ire of the law's opponents. “It's a complete euphemism,” fumed Charles Bentz, president of Physicians for Compassionate Care.

Desperate to avoid taking sides, state officials are now resorting to inventive circumlocutions such as “participation in the Death With Dignity Act”. This pleases no one, but seems to have staved off legal action. Meanwhile advocates of the act are pushing interested groups, such as journalists, to step back from “suicide” and adopt cheerier formulations such as “choice and control at the end of life”. It would have George Orwell rotating longitudinally in his subterranean post-life enclosure.

Copyright 2007 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.