Selling assisted suicide in California. Wordplay is not enough

This article was published by the National Review online on May 20, 2015.

By Dr Jacqueline Harvey

Jacqueline Harvey

Jacqueline Harvey

Suicide is hard to sell. After 23 years of failed attempts to legalize assisted suicide in California, lawmakers and lobbyists may have finally found a strategy that works: They just won’t call it suicide. And on the death certificate, they’ll simply lie.

Entitled the “End of Life Option Act,” California Senate Bill 128 mandates that “the cause of death listed on an individual’s death certificate who uses aid-in-dying medication shall be the underlying terminal illness,” not the lethal dose of poison that actually caused the individual’s death. Advocates of assisted suicide coined the term “aid in dying” and concocted the rationalization that killing oneself does not qualify as suicide if you have a life expectancy of six months or less. Yet it appears that it is not palatable enough to list the preferred misnomer, “aid in dying,” as the cause of death and that the only way lawmakers and lobbyists feel they can sell self-destruction is to falsify public records. 

Suicide, Stigma, and Branding

In 1992, California became the second state to place the assisted-suicide issue directly before the voters, a year after a similar ballot initiative was defeated in Washington State (but two years before an initiative narrowly passed in Oregon). In these early case studies on the power of wordplay, assisted-suicide proponents found that the word “suicide” was deadly to their cause. People recoil from it. Polls show that support for assisted suicide decreases by as much as 20 points when the word “suicide” is used, even though the substance of the question being asked remains unchanged. When we consider that California Proposition 161 failed by a margin of 54 to 46, it is clear how important semantics are.

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