This article was published in the Canadian Family Physician (April 2015) with an article supporting Physician-Assisted Death.
By Dr Edward (Ted) St Godard
The issue of physician-assisted death is complex and emotional, and we must not allow truth to become a casualty. Medical professionals and laypersons alike struggle to understand distinctions between euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, and many more fail to distinguish either act from simple refusal or authorized withdrawal of treatment.1 We must demand and demonstrate a courageous and respectful clarity.
The expression physician-assisted death is what is kindly known as a euphemism. Euphemism is defined as “the substitution of a mild, indirect, or vague expression for one thought to be offensive, harsh, or blunt.”2 Writing recently in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik noted:
[E]uphemism is a moral problem, not a cognitive one. When Dick Cheney calls torture “enhanced interrogation,” it doesn’t make us understand torture in a different way; it’s just a means for those who know they’re doing something wrong to find a phrase that doesn’t immediately acknowledge the wrongdoing.3
The substitution of physician-assisted death, or the ubiquitous medical aid in dying (something I provide daily), for the more accurate if somehow distasteful euthanasia (itself a euphemism) or physician-assisted suicide, represents at best a misplaced attempt at decorum or delicacy,4 and often a deliberate obfuscation. That our journal, like the Canadian Medical Association, has stooped to using this language is regrettable and, frankly, embarrassing. It is not just semantics.