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Don't kill the piano player!

Chris Docker

"Euthanasia means a good and easy death" - how many times do we here this recited like some mantra meant to convince our opponents? Okay, so that would be the translation if we followed the Greek roots of the word but it is not what the word means today in general usage. People generally think of one of two things when we say euthanasia: the active termination of life at the patient's request as it occurs in the Netherlands (or similar proposals in other countries); or the Nazi extermination program of murder. Some people take an extreme view, while many fall somewhere between the two camps. Dictionary definitions avail us little, as there will always be large groups of people that claim it means something else. (We see the unfortunate tendency to use dictionaries to define words rather than attempting to arrive at an understanding of what we truly mean.) The apparent derivation (from the Greek, eu - thanatos) hardly describes what we mean. Even extending the definition to include "bringing about of this, especially in the case of incurable and painful disease" hardly covers it - hospices often succeed in bringing about a peaceful death, but they don't perform euthanasia!

Proponents often go on to stress the importance of the word "voluntary" and we end up with a sort of mini mission statement without getting any closer to defining what we mean. In fact, our "definition" is so poor that, rather than helping our cause, it provides easy meat for opponents. We complain that words like "killing" and "murder" are emotive, and then commit the same error. Emotive buzzwords will mean different things to different people and are often a stumbling block to civilised discourse.

At a recent gathering of "pro-life" and "pro-choice" people of widely differing views (but sincerely committed to exploring them) we looked first at what terminology we could use to communicate. Case examples were useful for discussion, but phrases such as those used in the Netherlands proved the least troublesome, such as "Decisions that result in the ending of life with/without the request of the patient." Voluntary cannot be objectively determined, and opponents will always be concerned over whether the "request" was truly voluntary. The request itself, however, can be objectively observed as an event. It either existed or it didn't, and safeguards such as avoiding undue influence are ancilliary. A "decision that results in the ending of life" avoids needless divisions, for instance, over whether double-effect was involved. It avoids the moral opprobrium that some people connect with the "e" word. They are important decisions even when no request was involved, such as in the case of Tony Bland. A slightly broader heading might be "treatment decisions at the end of life."

Conceptual terms vs popular language

If the above holds true, then why retain such words in the name of the Society? There are many reasons. Changing the name would involve a lack of continuity, but there are also deeper reasons that have a sound historical, social reform basis. The history of reform shows the need for strong campaigning alongside clear reasoning. In analysing a situation we need clear conceptual arguments, but in conducting a campaign we need words that generate feeling and with which broad sections of the public can identify. Headlines are not made up of long sentences with words of many syllables - accuracy is sacrificed for attention-grab. We should be aware of the difference, and the different uses. Similarly, in part perhaps because of its very vagueness, voluntary euthanasia provides a focal point for all interest in that subject - from the public, the media, researchers - they all know to come to us. The same point applies to the word "living will" - vague, but the most popular term in the public's eye (we leave it to serious analysis to consider whether we mean, by that, an advance directive, an advance statement, an advance declaration, all of which have different shades of meaning.)

The language of rights

A similar and very serious problem occurs with the language of rights. Talk of "rights" produces a rapid public response, polarisation of feeling, public debate, an airing of the basic issues. The division is perhaps more problematic, as the use of the word "right" in the phrase "right-to-die" is, generally speaking, an abuse of the terminology. The ethicists and the courts will usually examine the issue in terms of an "interest" in dying. So when should we shout about "rights" and when should we be less confrontational in our choice of language? Sometimes, cultural differences may be important factors. The Australian euthanasia law is called "The Rights of the Terminally Ill Act" - and is in the Northern Territory where the issue of rights is a politically important subject in an area where there is a large Aboribinal population. The USA, with its written constitution, can analyse rights in terms of that constitution. Elsewhere, the logical flaws in the use of such language are more apparent and may serve to perpetuate conflict with "pro-life" groups. It is a difficult balancing act, and can only be accomplished if protagonists understand the difference rather than believing that the "buzz-words" are the language of serious discourse. There's no need to shoot the piano player - simply to realise that the rendering is hardly a symphony.

© 1996 Chris Docker
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