Spindoctors of Suicide
Call it ‘compassionate choice’, 'aid in dying' or whatever you want. But there’s no escaping the fact that legalised euthanasia would provide cultural approval for suicide.
There have been some significant shifts in the campaign for legalised euthanasia in the US in recent years. The supporters of euthanasia are employing public relations campaigners and legislative wordplay in an attempt to make their demands seem less negative and more patient- and people-friendly. But whatever they choose to call it, the central problem with the pro-euthanasia campaign – with these calls for the legalisation of ‘assisted dying’ or ‘physician-assisted suicide’ – is that it provides cultural affirmation for suicide in circumstances where death is unnecessary.
At the start of June, Jack Kevorkian, the somewhat flamboyant advocate for assisted suicide, walked out of a prison in Michigan after serving eight years for second degree murder. The 79-year-old former doctor was serving a 10- to 25-year sentence for injecting Thomas Youk with a lethal dose of potassium chloride on US national television in 1998.
Kevorkian had already been tried and acquitted of assisting three other deaths and, with a mobile machine administering potassium chloride called the ‘Mercitron’, Kevorkian had aided the deaths of some 130 ‘patients’. Out on parole for good behaviour (Kevorkian appears not to have carried out his threat to go on hunger strike if ever sent to prison), Kevorkian has promised not to assist any more deaths. He will, however, continue campaigning for the legalisation of assisted suicide.
Talking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last weekend, Kevorkian defended his actions: ‘I have no regrets in helping the suffering human. If I had regrets I’d be the biggest hypocrite. This is not done willy-nilly, it isn’t done because I have a whim and I want to do it immediately. No. It’s done for the sake of the patient.’
Since Kevorkian has been in prison, however, much has changed. Most importantly, spindoctors have changed the terms of the debate. No longer is Kevorkian the courageous figurehead of the movement for ‘the right to die’ or even of ‘assisted suicide’. Such negative monikers are distinctly out of fashion amongst those campaigning for California’s ‘Compassionate Choices Act’ (aka Assembly Bill 374), which aims, if it eventually passes through the California legislature, to allow physician-assisted deaths in the country’s most populous state. However, the bill was withdrawn by its supporters last week due to a lack of support before legislators in Sacramento had a chance to vote on it. But this was a purely tactical retreat - the aim is to revive the bill in the next session.
Kevorkian himself is persona non grata; as the New York Times said, he is regarded as ‘scary and peculiar’. His activism is distinctly passé. California assemblywoman Patty Berg, co-sponsor of the Compassionate Choices Act, said upon his release: ‘In a way, Dr. Kevorkian is the poster boy for why we need this law. The disturbing tale of Dr. Kevorkian is a tale of desperation and fear — a tale of the tragic lengths people will go to when they have no legal options.’ (1)
The fact that California has even come close to enacting such legislation is a testament to advocates’ PR and their nothing less than Orwellian manipulation of language, as well as opponents’ unwitting acceptance of these terms. Even the relatively understated term ‘assisted suicide’ (see Killing to be kind?, by Thomas Szasz) has been replaced by a new, improved term, ‘physician assisted death’. Pollsters worked out that the term ‘suicide’ had negative connotations, particularly after 9-11. Though ‘physician-assisted death’ was sufficient to win the day in Oregon, where the Death with Dignity Act was enacted in 1997, similarly-titled Acts did not pass in Maine (2000), Hawaii (2002) or in Vermont (2007). In California, often seen as a bellweather for the US public mood, the stakes are higher.
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Now, suicide is completely out. Steve Hopcraft, California campaign manager for the largest and most powerful right-to-die advocacy group in the nation, Compassion and Choices, believes semantics are important. ‘The word “suicide” is completely pejorative’, he said. ‘It’s really insulting to people who are dying of cancer – who are facing a very grim and painful death – to call their desire to end their own suffering suicide.’ The outrage expressed by Hopcraft may also have its origins in the results of a Gallup poll. Whereas 58 per cent of respondents supported ‘doctor-assisted suicide’, 75 per cent supported the coy phrase, ‘physician aid in dying’. Accordingly, Compassion and Choices began a successful lobbying campaign to have the American Public Health Association adopt the ‘value neutral’ term ‘aid in dying’. Does anyone remember ‘mercy killing’?
Thus, Assembly Bill 374 has, you understand, nothing to do with suicide. In fact, the idea is specifically rejected in the bill: ‘Actions taken in accordance with this chapter shall not, for any purpose, constitute suicide [or] assisted suicide….. Every state agency, department or office that prepares or issues a document or report that describes or refers to the medical practice described in this chapter shall use the phrase “aid in dying”.’
The opposition to euthanasia has also become increasingly concerned with image and numbers in polls. The Catholic Church, mindful of its fragile relationship with its membership, has stayed out of the fray, relying on its PR wing, the California Catholic Conference, to do its political dirty work. Often, there is a desperate attempt to frighten people with the prospect, as one protester’s placard read, of a ‘Buchenwald Bill’. The real story in Oregon – where only 298 people have ended their lives by ingesting physician-prescribed drugs – is not as scary as opponents make it out. No ‘slippery slope’ of euthanasia has yet emerged.
The best argument against assisted suicide is precisely that it is a cultural approval for suicide for reasons of fear and depression – something also demonstrated by the useful Annual Report into the Death With Dignity Act. (2) Whatever the convoluted semantics about ‘choice’, it is suicide and, whatever the trumped-up talk about ‘dignity’, depression is a curable disease. If a society gives up trying to help people and prescribes suicide as a legitimate response to life’s difficulties, it legitimates all suicides. This is the real slippery slope.
Kevin Yuill teaches American studies at the University of Sunderland in England, and is author of Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action. Read a review of the book here, or buy it from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).
(1) See the compassion and choices website
(2) The 2006 report is available here