Analysis

Assisted suicide advocates want to drop ‘suicide’ terminology

assisted suicide, euthanasia

As assisted suicide grows in popularity around the world and is legalized in more countries, advocates are increasingly arguing to change the terminology. Instead of calling it assisted suicide, advocates claim it should be called “aid in dying” or “death with dignity.” Why? Because they say that the word “suicide” carries a stigma with it. While champions of assisted suicide argue that it is different from so-called regular suicide, no matter how much they try to justify it, the truth remains — assisted suicide is the tragic taking of a life, and anyone who desires their own death deserves compassion and help, not encouragement to die.

A flawed argument

Anita Hannig, who studies assisted suicide, is an anthropologist and associate professor of anthropology at Brandeis University. In an op-ed for Big Think, Hannig argued that “suicide” needs to be dropped from the term “assisted suicide.”

“Until just recently, the primary term in the English language for the purposeful, voluntary death of oneself was ‘suicide.’ Besides martyrdom or sacrifice, there was no other way to refer to an intentional self-death,” she wrote. “But times have changed.”

Hannig argued that continuing to use the word “suicide” is harmful. “I have spent five years shadowing patients, families, and physicians involved with assisted dying in America, and I saw how damaging this conflation can be,” she continued, adding, “Although suicide – but not its assistance – has been decriminalized today, it remains heavily stigmatized. As philosopher Ian Hacking writes, ‘News of a suicide among us has an immediate response: horror.’ Calling assisted dying ‘suicide’ taps into the social taboos and moral outrage that surround the act of taking one’s life.”

Using the word suicide means patients have less support, Hannig argued, and makes it harder for those left behind to grieve. Yet she still fundamentally misunderstands what happens during assisted suicide. “From their inception, assisted-dying laws in America were designed to mobilize the tools of medicine to ease suffering at the end of someone’s life,” she said. “These laws draw a clear line between assisted dying and a suicidal act. … An assisted death is collaborative and sanctioned by a patient’s support system – not unilateral and covert.”

She continued:

Terminally ill patients who seek an assisted death aren’t suicidal. Absent a terminal prognosis, they have no independent desire to end their life. In fact, prescribing physicians must uphold the distinction between assisted dying and suicide in their clinical work by screening for mental illness, such as depression (which is clinically associated with suicidal thoughts). A patient who shows any signs of mental impairment must undergo further scrutiny by a mental health expert.

None of what Hannig says, however, is true.

READ: Peru allows euthanasia for woman with incurable illness for first time

The reality behind assisted suicide

It’s not unusual at all for people who choose assisted suicide to do so privately, in secret, only to leave their families heartbroken and shocked. One of the most notorious stories is that of sisters from Arizona who underwent assisted suicide together in Switzerland in secret — even though both were perfectly healthy. But they’re far from the only ones.

Tom Mortier has been seeking justice for years after his mother died through assisted suicide in secret, solely because she was depressed. She was not otherwise dying, and her family wasn’t informed until afterward. A healthy Italian woman was euthanized because she was depressed, lonely, and worried about losing her looks. Her family had no idea and had even reported her to the police as missing. They only learned of her death after receiving her ashes and death certificate from Dignitas, the assisted suicide clinic.

And sadly, most people who undergo assisted suicide do not do so because they are dying.

Increasingly, people opting for assisted suicide are doing so because of chronic illnesses, disability, old age, mental health disorders, and even poverty.

Multiple studies, including studies published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine and the British Medical Journal, found that people pursue assisted suicide because they feel hopeless, are struggling with depression, are afraid they are a burden on their loved ones, or don’t have support. When these issues are addressed, the request for assisted suicide is often withdrawn.

Other studies have also shown that legalizing assisted suicide does not, as Hannig claims, cause fewer people to commit “regular” suicide. In fact, legalizing assisted suicide causes suicide rates to increase. A study published in the Southern Medical Journal found that “legalizing assisted suicide is associated with a 6.3 percent increase in the total suicide rate – including both assisted and non-assisted suicides. For the over-65 age group, the increase is 14.5 percent.”

A double standard

When a young, healthy person says they want to die, society does everything it can to help them and prevent their death. They are told how their life still has worth and value, and the pain they may be experiencing — the pain and suffering driving them to want suicide — can be appeased. But if that person is elderly, ill, disabled, or poor, their desire for suicide is suddenly acceptable. No longer is their life worth saving. That’s the only thing that is different.

It doesn’t matter how much people like Hannig try to sugarcoat the phrasing: wanting to intentionally take one’s life is suicide. The only thing that changes is the societal and medical acceptance of this tragic desire.

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