Why medically assisted dying is not suicide

Assisted dying, physician-assisted death, medical assistance in dying. These are some of the terms our spokespeople use when they give a presentation or interview about Canadians’ right to die with the help of a doctor.

Absent from the list is a familiar phrase that’s overstayed its welcome in the North American right-to-die debate: assisted suicide. We generally avoid this term because it stigmatizes people who are suffering intolerably from a devastating medical condition and want the option of a peaceful death. The word “suicide” is loaded with negative connotations and linguistic baggage that has no place in a reasoned adult conversation about choices at end of life.

Why is referring to assisted death as “suicide” so inappropriate? One of the best explanations out there comes from a 2012 column by Globe and Mail health writer André Picard. “Suicide is an act of self-harm that is almost always a byproduct of mental illness like schizophrenia or severe depression,” he writes. This is in no way comparable to hastening death via a methodical, sober process with a number of legal safeguards.” Calling assisted dying “suicide,” he continues, “is a lot like calling surgery a knife attack.” Talk about a vivid analogy.

What’s missing but is certainly implied in Picard’s article is the havoc that suicide wreaks upon families and communities across Canada. Few things are more traumatic for first responders than discovering the body of someone who ended their own life in a violent manner; few things are more haunting for a parent than imagining the lonely, desperate last moments of a son or daughter who died by suicide. As a society, we have a duty to respond to tragedies this heart-rending with robust prevention strategies and public awareness campaigns.

In addition, while suicide is motivated by feelings of hopelessness, the push for the legalization of medically assisted dying has been driven by hope. Members of our movement want the comfort of knowing that, if worst comes to worst, they will be afforded the choice of a gentle death. Having the option available can help soothe some of the terror and uncertainty that comes with a terminal cancer diagnosis. It can allow dying individuals to more easily embrace living during the precious time he or she has left, regardless of whether they ultimately opt for an assisted death.

Putting patients front and centre

Another term you’ll hardly ever hear us use is “euthanasia.” Though the word was derived from the Greek for “a good death," it too is saddled with terrifying associations that distract from the realities of assisted dying. It’s not uncommon to see references to euthanasia appear in books and scholarly papers about historical atrocities — murderous acts that were motivated by hatred and ignorance, and whose victims were denied the freedom to choose in the most horrific way possible.

The push for legal assisted dying couldn’t come from a more different place: our movement is animated by compassion and empathy and strives to put individual patients in the driver’s seat, emphasizing their personal agency. Why not use terminology that does the same thing?

Don’t believe the anti-choice critics who say our campaign for patient-centred language represents a mindless adherence to political correctness, or worse, a cynical attempt to sell the public en masse on the merits of having an assisted death. In actual fact, we are simply trying to use terms that recognize assisted dying for what it really is: one among a multitude of valid, humane choices available to Canadians who are considering their options for end of life. Nothing more, and nothing less.

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(Header photo credit: Adobe Stock: Lobro)

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