Suicide by Any Other Name

By Marker, Rita L.; Hentoff, Nat et al. | The Human Life Review, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Suicide by Any Other Name


Marker, Rita L., Hentoff, Nat, Lopez, Kathryn Jean, Levin, Yuval, Arkes, Hadley, The Human Life Review


Oregon Officials seek Neutral Term for 'Assisted Suicide.'" That headline in the November 17, 2006 Oregonian (Oregon's largest newspaper), signaled crucial linguistic tweaks that assisted-suicide proponents hope will break their losing streak.

The business world has always known that product names, slogans, and advertisements must have appealing language or the public won't buy the product. Those who are selling death know this, too. They are savvy promoters who are willing to change marketing tactics to gain acceptance and support for their agenda.

When the State of Oregon passed the nation's first assisted-suicide law-a law that transformed the crime of assisted suicide into a "medical treatment"-right-to-die activists thought other states would fall like dominoes. But they were wrong. In the more than twelve years since that event, state after state and many other countries have considered Oregon-type measures. Assisted-suicide leaders and practitioners from Oregon have traveled to every target jurisdiction to testify before lawmakers and to do interviews with the media.

With Oregon as their poster state, their consistent message has been, "It's working well in Oregon." To back up that slogan, they have pointed to official annual statistics from the state.

In every new attempt to pass an Oregon-style law, there was early support for the measure. Yet, in every instance, when the official vote was taken, the proposal met with defeat. Since their singular victory in Oregon, assistedsuicide advocates have failed to add even one state or country to then· win column.

What Is "It"?

With the exception of Oregon, the public and lawmakers just haven't bought the idea that assisted suicide is a good thing. That left assisted-suicide activists searching for reasons.

After all, "It's working well in Oregon" is catchy. A family member discussing how peaceful "it" is tugs at the heartstrings. Official reports stating that there haven't been any complications from "it" are trotted out to show that opponents who predicted complications were only trying to use scare tactics to prevent "it."

So why hasn't "it" been embraced outside of Oregon?

After much research and polling, assisted-suicide advocates have come up with the answer: Everything depends on what the meaning of the word "it" is.

If "it" is called "assisted suicide," support plummets. The word "suicide" is the problem.

During a California attempt to pass an assisted-suicide law, the euphemistically named organization Compassion & Choices (C & C) hired public opinion researchers to test voters' reactions to terminology. (Having learned the importance of the maxim, "all social engineering is preceded by verbal engineering," C & C has played the name game before. The group was previously known as the Hemlock Society.)1

In 2005, public opinion researcher David Binder asked respondents to provide a letter grade to various terms used in the assisted-suicide debate. He found that "respondents have a negative impression of the term 'assisted suicide'" which received a "D." Respondents viewed the phrases "Death with dignity," "Right to Die," and "End of life choices" more favorably and gave them much higher grades.2 Other polls confirm the negative connotation of the word "suicide."

For example, in 2005, the Gallup organization reported that respondents were more apt to approve letting doctors "end a patient's life" than they were to giving doctors the right to "assist the patient to commit suicide." According to the polling firm, "The apparent conflict in values appears to be a consequence of mentioning, or not mentioning, the word 'suicide.'"3

Assisted-suicide advocates concluded that, if they were going to break their twelve-year string of failure, the word "suicide" had to go. It had to be replaced with a more neutral term. And since the Oregon law is used as the model for other legislation, they began attempts to get the media to stop using "assisted suicide" in articles.

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