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Youth ‘n age ia

By David Kitchingman in All Sorts

euthanasia is a question for the whole population, both young and aged and we and churches need to contribute constructively in the conversation that is required to move society forward on this issue.

Youth ‘n age ia
To come clean, what am I obliquely referring to? No prizes if you’ve already guessed the familiar homophone of this expression. The August meeting of the Dunedin Sea of Faith dealt with the ‘End of Life Choice Bill’, which was drawn from the Parliamentary ballot in June and will most likely be debated later this year (after the election) or early next year. Sea of Faith had no quibble in announcing its topic as ‘The Euthanasia Debate’, but I find myself a little hesitant in introducing it.
The following morning (25 August) the ‘Faith and reason’ column in the Otago Daily Times featured an article on the same topic by Keith Bragan of Wanaka, a retired psychiatrist and author. It was headed: ‘Loaded words’ must not be used. It will help to explain my own roundabout way of broaching the subject. Bragan wrote:
We are now engaged in what is a very important debate on assisted death... The challenge is to be reasonable, which...requires not letting feelings hold too much sway and not using loaded words..., words that carry weight in addition to their literal meaning.
Bragan argued that there are three such words that should not be used in this debate: homicide, suicide and euthanasia. I don’t have space here to deal with the first two − euthanasia is enough on its own. Although the Greek origin of the word means ‘good death’, he is concerned that it has become negatively tainted in reference to Nazi atrocities and treatment of laboratory animals. Bragan says: ‘It is not right to use the word in this debate. Assisted death says it as it is.’
I suggest that ‘assisted dying’ might be a slightly more precise alternative. Either version has merit as a neutral descriptor. But ‘euthanasia’ is well established as a shorthand expression which is unlikely to be dispensed with, and for clarity’s sake can be expanded to ‘voluntary euthanasia’. Its positive and negative connotations should
balance out enough to allow it to be cautiously retained on either side of the argument.
My questioning of Bragan’s suggestion is not just to oppose avoidance of the euthanasia word. Rather, we need to extend his caution regarding a few words to an awareness of the pervasive loadedness of words in general. The fact is that practically all words (excepting participles, conjunctions and prepositions, if not pronouns) can be and often are loaded in certain contexts. The word ‘reform’, beloved by politicians, is a prime example. An expression such as ‘euthanasia reform’ may often fall into the trap of simply begging the question.
Another example will help. Figures of speech are often loaded expressions. One of the commonest in the euthanasia debate is the ‘slippery slope’ argument. Indeed, it is often regarded as the single strongest objection to legalizing euthanasia. It refers to the perceived danger that if A is initially allowed, then B (which in itself may be more problematic than A) may well be more likely to follow, and so on with C etc. Without going into the detail of the ensuing arguments for and against, we need to be aware of how emotionally powerful such graphic imagery as ‘slippery slope’ can be. The phrase on its own can be immensely influential, regardless of the merits of the case it represents.
As far as I’m aware, advocates of euthanasia have yet to come up with anything like as persuasive an image. In response to the warnings of a ‘slippery slope’ leading to abuse and coercion, they could well try arguing that the current law presents an ‘insurmountable hurdle’ standing in the way of compassion and autonomy, and therefore does require ‘reform’.
Another aspect of loadedness in the debate is the way words can be weighted more heavily according to their source. This is increasingly a trap for the churches. Gone are the days when direct appeal to sacred writ can be expected to help determine public policy. Yet in 2015 I had occasion to make a submission to our church’s Faith and Order Committee. It had prepared a paper entitled ‘Reflections on Physician Assisted Suicide: Resources for a Conversation’. A resource it drew on was a 2004 paper by the Interchurch Bioethics Council on ‘Euthanasia: Unethical Intervention or Death with Dignity?’
That paper had included many biblical references, including this one from Psalm 104: ‘[T]he earth is full of your creatures...creeping things innumerable are there...when you take away their breath they die...’ A sense of the centrality and universality of divine governance may well become integral to personal faith but the psalmist fell into the trap of wanting to impose his particular world view on the fate of others (see verse 35). The Psalm is a glorious hymn to the complexity, even the contradictions, of creation (God serves the young lions with their supper), but it doesn’t enshrine precise answers as to how we should ‘bless the Lord’ as long as we live.
That may be a peripheral example, but it suggests to me that the churches are not adopting a very good position to assist constructively in the nationwide conversation that is required to move society forward on the euthanasia issue. They remain too captured by the loadedness of their heritage. Despite Bragan’s wariness of ‘letting feelings hold too much sway’ there’s a need for both emotional honesty and recognition of the bias of loadedness.
My euphemistic ‘youth ‘n age ia’ tag may have a point. It reminds us that euthanasia is a question for the whole population, both young and aged. End of life choices are not always for the elderly, and in any case the manner and timing of death have enormous ramifications for the living as well as the dying. We need to think very carefully and also feel very deeply on the way to resolving a legal framework that maximizes both freedom and protection for individuals and society.
David Kitchingman