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Inflammatory Language Detracts from the Right to Die Debate

08/21/2013 02:04 EDT | Updated 10/21/2013 05:12 EDT

One of the joys of my work is connecting with people who are bright, articulate, and passionate. And the right to die issue seems to really bring them out! One such person is Elizabeth Doyle, a PhD Candidate in Philosophy at York University. When she's not busy finishing off her PhD or teaching at York, Elizabeth volunteers for Dying With Dignity as a speaker and ambassador. Here is her response to a recent inflammatory piece by pro-life-at-all-costs blogger Will Johnston.

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Pictured, Elizabeth Doyle, Dying With Dignity Canada Ambassador and PhD Candidate at York University.

Recently, Dr. Will Johnston spoke to the need to clarify the language that is used to describe the practice of medically-assisted death. His expressed concern is that those who advocate for the right to die with dignity (what he refers to as the "death lobby") may be able to "rebrand" the nature of the practice, and, in turn, change the hearts and minds of "average" Canadians. Johnston claims that instead of viewing medically-assisted death as a means to relieve suffering in the terminally ill, this practice is nothing other than the "medical equivalent of a silent bullet in the head" that "we don't need."

I disagree with the writer for a number of reasons. Although I appreciate that he has opened the door to having a conversation about language and transparency, it is quite clear that Dr. Johnston has, himself, provided an incomplete picture of what dying with dignity is about, and what it would mean to the practitioner, patient, and community at large.

It is true that palliative care is effective in many cases, and I wholeheartedly encourage more research, development, and education devoted to improving the accessibility and delivery of quality palliative care in Canada. But even when the best care is provided it can still fail to target let alone relieve suffering at the end of life. This means that when palliative care is our only medical recourse, some terminally ill patients will, inevitably, be left suffering devastating losses of function and ability at the end of life, losses that are not only painful but are often regarded by the patients themselves as robbing their lives of continued meaning. This is morally unacceptable in its own right, but especially because this tragic reality can be avoided.

We live in a country that possesses the technology to allow for an expedient and peaceful death. What's more, we live in a community that cares enough to ensure necessary safeguards are in place, safeguards that will secure the integrity of the practice for both physician and patient alike. Legalizing medically-assisted death would hardly be giving doctors and nurses "the right to kill," then. It would be upholding the right to live and die with dignity.

Advocates for medically-assisted death are not urging our fellow Canadians to change their hearts and minds about what makes human life valuable. We are encouraging everyone to recognize that, for some people, the value of human life does not just consist in a beating heart. Far from "rebranding" with the intention to deceive, we are exposing the euphemisms that are employed by some opponents of dying with dignity -- euphemisms like "killing" -- that are used to prey on emotions and antiquated ways of thinking. It is only when we expose these euphemisms to the light of day that we can have a thoughtful, informed conversation as a community that shows care for people who are living in extreme pain and suffering, and a desire to relieve that pain and suffering. Affording terminally ill people the right to die with dignity will mean that some individuals will choose to die natural deaths that are dignified. It will also mean that others will choose to have a pain-free, expedient death at the hands of a trusted medical expert.

It is a sad truth that a terminally ill person's death is already imminent. The question we therefore have to ask ourselves is whether that imminent death should be replete with pain and suffering in order to maintain a belief-system which relies on thinking doctors and nurses cannot be trusted, or whether that death should be pain-free when the individual is competent to decide that a life of continued suffering robs life of its personal meaning. Answering this question will not be predicated on changing hearts and minds in vain, but on opening those hearts and minds to the truth that there is devastating suffering that can be alleviated.