As a journalist, I tend to be impatient with fussy terminological precision, a character flaw which occasionally raises the hackles of readers with more exacting standards. However, I do believe that terminology shouldn't ever be fudged, especially in public debates over bioethical issues.
That’s why I was so disappointed to read this admission by Gerald Dworkin, an academic who has been lobbying with Compassion & Choices for assisted suicide in California. Professor Dworkin is the author of a 1998 book, Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide. Looking back, he admits that it was injudicious to use straightforward language in the book’s title:
“I should note that the use of the term ‘Physician-assisted suicide’ is now politically incorrect, for tactical reasons. I understand that the popular prejudice against suicide makes it more difficult to rally support for the bills I favor. And even some potential users of such measures object to their death-certificate reading ‘suicide’. But to list the cause of death, as many such bills do, as the underlying disease process seems to me simply a lie. What caused the person diagnosed with terminal cancer to die now, rather than somewhat later, is the secobarbital the patient took. But learning to keep silent about such terminological matters was only one of many lessons I had to learn.”
What a shame it is to win a debate by muddying the waters. As Samuel Johnson said, “It is more from carelessness about truth than from intentional lying, that there is so much falsehood in the world."
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