Opinion: Let’s call physician-assisted suicide what it is

The number of words we can’t use without offending is ever growing, and if the supporters of the right-to-die movement have their way, it will stretch yet again to include the word “suicide.” At least when that suicide is the result of a dying patient taking a lethal dose of drugs to avoid impending mental and physical anguish.

It’s insensitive at best to use the “S” word in this context, I’ve been informed by several advocates, because people would not be choosing this option because of a psychiatric disorder or despair over life. They don’t want to die; their diseases have forced that on them. Senate Bill 128, legislation recently introduced in California to allow physicians to write lethal prescriptions under tightly controlled circumstances, not only refrains from calling this suicide but would not allow death certificates to reflect how the death occurred.

“The cause of death listed on an individual’s death certificate who uses aid-in-dying medication shall be the underlying terminal illness,” it reads.


In other words, it wouldn’t mention the legal drugs that actually caused the death. The public should have a problem with that.

A lawsuit filed last week makes a similar argument in its efforts to have the courts declare that these fatal prescriptions for dying patients are legal in the state, even without a new law. Among its claims is that the state law that prohibits helping another person commit suicide doesn’t apply to physician-assisted death because that isn’t suicide.

To be clear, I strongly believe in the right of the terminally ill to make their own decisions about how and when to meet death, when they have been told they have no more than six months to live. So does The Times editorial board. But I also am an advocate of facts—not distorting the wording on public documents so that they will forever tell a false story of the cause of death. And we should not shy away from accurate words. Suicide means the deliberate taking of one’s own life before it is claimed by other forces. It might be for good reasons—such as knowing that the few months lying ahead would involve unacceptable levels of deterioration. But I’d rather not see us cancel out accurate words and replace them with jargon.

It’s true that the word carries stigma, which is why so many other words have gone by the wayside. The answer should be to remove the stigma, not the word itself. Perhaps we need a “justifiable suicide” category just as there is “justifiable homicide.”

The wording of the bill, and of the arguments around it, show the mushy territory that the right-to-death movement is trying to negotiate by evading the word suicide. If someone has a terminal illness and ends his or her life earlier through another means than lethal drugs, is that suicide? Only physician-assisted suicide makes it not suicide? Even if the person wanted to live and never would have taken such an act without the diagnosis?

Surely we can deal with death certificates without keeping the truth off them. People often die of conditions that are related to an underlying illness, though those conditions are not the actual illness. Such certificates could read, “suicide by lethal prescription, as a result of (disease here).”

The legislation should pass. Most Californians support it, and for those who don’t believe in physician-assisted suicide, the bill would protect their right to die with dignity in their own way. But the wording should be changed. The full truth still matters.

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