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Euphemisms Can Kill

When certain words are considered too blunt, harsh, painful, or offensive, people sometimes substitute a euphemism, that is, a more acceptable term, a term with fewer negative connotations or with more positive connotations, than the blunt, harsh, painful, or offensive term.

We might say, “I’m sorry to hear of the passing of your husband,” to avoid the term death. Or we say, “I’m going to the ladies/men’s room,” to avoid saying bathroom, or toilet.

Euphemisms are sometimes helpful, but they can also desensitize us emotionally and hide reality—including moral reality. A friend of mine enjoys saying “the problem isn’t “sleeping together, it’s what they do before they go to sleep!” But that is another topic, for a future newsletter. (Teaser: your donations have allowed us to develop a wonderful Chastity/Abstinence program.)

Interestingly, the dangers inherent in euphemisms were almost prophetically envisioned by George Orwell in his famous novel 1984 and in his lesser known essay “Politics and the English Language.” Orwell put forward the idea that an effective mechanism of political control is the manipulation of euphemisms employed in public discussion.

Whenever we hear “Death with Dignity” and “Medical Aid in Dying” we need to be wary. Yes, we want the medical profession to keep us comfortable, give us basic care: clean sheets and a warm blanket, plenty of water and nutritious food, and even pain medication. However, when we hear “Medical Aid in Dying” or “Death with Dignity,” often it means a lot more than “comfort care.”

Dying and killing are not the same. It is important to be clear about this distinction and not be hoodwinked by euphemisms. Dying is allowing a natural process to take its course; killing is an action that hastens this process.

“Personal autonomy” is a phrase often bandied about. Yes, we want the patient to maintain as much control over his or her situation as possible; however, personal autonomy has limits: I do not have the right to drink and drive, or to drive on the sidewalk. By the same logic, I do not have the right to end the life of myself or another.

Often the situation is framed as a dichotomy, either we allow physician-assisted suicide, or we “sentence the patient to insufferable pain.” However, there is a third option: palliative care. Palliative care is a branch of medicine that focuses on relief of physical and mental pain without necessarily curing the disease. Sometimes this palliative care may involve the gradual increase in pain medication to relieve extreme suffering by making the patient unaware and unconscious (as in a deep sleep) while the disease takes its course, eventually leading to death. The sedative medication is gradually increased until the patient is comfortable and able to relax. Palliative sedation is not intended to cause death or shorten life.

According to ethicist Margaret Somerville, just as death isn’t the intended effect of high-risk surgery (needed to relieve pain), and therefore such surgery is not immoral if death occurs, so too if death is not the intended effect of high-risk pain management, and yet death occurs, then neither is such pain management immoral. (Margaret A. Somerville, “Euthanasia is never necessary,” Citizen, June 1999, p. 6.)

Ideas have consequences; sometimes the consequences of bad ideas can be disastrous. Rather than advocate for a process to actively eliminate the patient, we should do a better job of providing excellent palliative care—pain relief and life-enhancing dignity—for all who suffer.

We are called to embrace a culture of life, not a culture of death, from the very first stages of life in the womb, until its conclusion at the bedside of the infirmed and elderly. Beware of euphemisms which can be used to twist logic and lead to the active elimination of our infirmed and elderly brothers and sisters.

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