Deliberately Causing Your Own Death by Taking an Overdose of Barbiturates Is Not to Be Confused With Suicide


Beginning this week, the Oregon Department of Human Services is calling the prescription of lethal drugs to terminally ill patients who want to kill themselves "physician-assisted death." As is clear from some lingering headings on the department's website, the official term used to be physician-assisted suicide. This was always awkward for the state of Oregon, inasmuch as the Death With Dignity Act, the law that allows the physician assistance in question, declares that "actions taken in accordance with [the act] shall not, for any purpose, constitute suicide, assisted suicide, mercy killing or homicide, under the law." In a press release that does not seem to be available online, Compassion & Choices, a group that supports physician-assisted, um, death, hails the change in nomenclature as "a major leap forward in clarifying the public's perception and understanding of the distinction between suicide and a terminally ill patient's choice to hasten death."

To me, it seems like a sizable step backward in clarifying the public's perception and understanding of the rather important distinction between suicide and euthanasia. Although Oregon's law is quite clear that patients themselves must initiate the process (and then jump through several hoops before they can obtain their barbiturates), the phrase physician-assisted death leaves muddy the question of whether the assistance was requested and, if so, who requested it. The term thereby provides ammunition to critics of the law who say it is the first step down a slippery slope to physician-ordered homicide. Although I'm uncomfortable with the medicalization of what ought to be a moral choice in the hands of each individual, I think the Death With Dignity Act, on balance, enhances liberty by providing a option patients otherwise would not have. But the euphemisms do not help the cause of giving people more control over their final days.