Assisted Suicide

What do you call an assisted death?

By Derek Humphry
November 09, 2006

Controversy in Oregon about the best term to describe how a doctor helps a terminally ill person to die under the Oregon Death With Dignity Act (1994) set me thinking about all the terms we use to describe ways of dying and death. The row in Oregon is between people on the ‘choice’ side who abhor words like suicide, euthanasia, and Hemlock, while on the ‘anti-choice’ side they want the foregoing words to be clearly spelled out because, they think, it helps their opposing case.

Since the hastened death law became operative in 1998, the Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) has always used the term ‘physician-assisted suicide’ in its annual reports on when and how the law is used. All medical and academic journals used the same term.

Journalists and broadcasters bluntly refer to the Oregon law either as ‘suicide’ or ‘assisted suicide’ – rarely mentioning that only a licensed physician can do this, and after observing a number of rules.

After vacillating about whether to call the procedure ‘physician-assisted death’ – and meeting lots of criticism from the right-to-life forces that this could mean any number of things – the DHS plumped for the innocuous term “Death With Dignity.”

But the flaw is that this also is a term which could mean different things to different people.

‘Death With Dignity’ could mean an overdose of lethal drugs to one person, yet to another it could mean dying while thinking of Christ’s suffering on the cross.

For the past eight years, the annual reports by the Oregon agency of how the law has been work have been a goldmine to those who want to see how such an unusual law works. A spade was called a spade. But now we have to wonder what the umbrella phrase ‘death with dignity’ really means in upcoming reports.

I think the DHS should stick with ‘physician-assisted suicide’ – describing an action precisely. With the words ‘physician-assisted’ in front, the humanitarian manner of the suicide – and its lawfulness – is apparent to most people. Clearly it is not a sad, depressive suicide because only a competent, dying adult can get this sort of help from a doctor in Oregon. (And only in Oregon, except for Holland, Belgium and Switzerland.)

Probably this debate is not over, so I offer a list of alternative terms for justifiable help in dying or for a chosen death:

For when a doctor prescribes a lethal overdose which the dying patient chooses to drink:

1. Physician-assisted suicide
2. Physician-assisted death
3. Physician-assisted dying
4. Physician-hastened death
5. Death With Dignity
6. Aid in Dying
7. Medically-assisted dying
8. Medicide (Kevorkian MD)
9. Physician-managed death

For when a sick patient chooses to end his or her own life without medical help:

1. Self-deliverance
2. Patient-directed dying (Preston MD)
3. Humane self-chosen death
4. Auto-euthanasia
5. Rational suicide
6. Hastened death
7. Right to choose to die
8. Choice in dying
9. Self-determination
10. Suicide
11. Assisted suicide
12. Final Exit (Humphry)
13. Managed death
14. Self-destruction

Common euphemisms to avoid saying "dead"

1. Passed away
2. Passed on
3. Gone to a better place
4. Departed
5. Gone to meet his Maker
6. Gone to meet the majority
7. Gone to the world of light
8. In Davy Jones’s locker


Croaked, gave up the ghost, total goner, kicked the bucket, dead as a doornail, snuffed it, bit the dust, bought the farm, flat-lined and is pushing up daisies.

Derek Humphry, aged 76, is a veteran writer with no background in medicine, psychiatry or law. Currently he is president of the Euthanasia Research and Guidance Organization (ERGO) in Oregon, USA.

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