The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines suicide as: “Death caused by self-directed injurious behavior with any intent to die as a result of the behavior .” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as: “the act or an instance of taking one’s own life voluntarily and intentionally especially by a person of years of discretion and of sound mind.” By both of those definitions, the act of a terminally ill person ingesting an overdose of pills with the intention of ending their life would qualify as suicide.
Instead of the word “assisted,” she prefers the word “aid.” But logically and technically, I cannot see a difference between “physician assisted suicide” and “physician aid in dying.” Nor do I see a moral difference. As I pointed out in my post, I have been a long time supporter of people’s rights to end their lives when they are suffering from terminal illnesses, and of the appropriateness of physicians helping them do this.
But Tucker made some outstanding points in her essay, ones I am very grateful to have learned from, and ones that are very much in the spirit of my original post. She points out that the way people perceive words matters, separate from the specific definition of those words. She points out that the word “suicide” is stigmatized. Many, perhaps most, acts of suicide are the acts of people who are not in their right state of mind. Most of us physicians are trained, correctly, to see suicide as a warning that a patient needs help, and to treat suicide as something to prevent rather than assist in.
I cannot dispute when a terminally ill person says that describing them as suicidal is “disrespectful and hurtful.” But I can tell you this. I did not use the word suicide with any intention to be disrespectful or hurtful. The goal of my essay was to point out that it’s a mistake to equate a person ending their own life with the concept of dignity. It can also be dignified not to end one’s life. It can be dignified to fight all the way to the end, with the most aggressive possible care. It can be dignified to enroll in hospice care, and die naturally without taking any substances that hasten one’s end. And yes, it can be dignified for a terminally ill person to take control over their own destiny, and ingest medications that end their life.
Thanks to Kathryn Tucker, I will not use the phrase physician-assisted suicide again, except to make sure people understand that the phrase carries connotations that are unnecessarily pejorative.