“Assisted lethal medication”

We’re having a lively discussion in the KPLU newsroom about the language surrounding the recently passed Initiative-1000. It’s called the “death with dignity” law by supporters, and “physician-assisted suicide” by opponents.   A judge ruled last spring that the ballot title would not include a reference to assisted suicide, preferring instead more neutral language. Last summer, the Associated Press decided to call it “assisted suicide” – and that is the source of copy for many stories we read over the air on KPLU.

Here’s the challenge for radio and TV broadcasters: It doesn’t always work to say aloud a phrase like, “the measure that allows terminally ill competent adults to obtain lethal prescriptions.” We need a shorthand phrase. That’s one reason why the AP went with assisted suicide.

The other reason is, we prefer to be clear and descriptive, and to avoid speaking euphemistically. The phrase “assisted suicide” seems to summarize what the law allows. In the past, it was illegal for a doctor to prescribe medication that would enable someone to end their life. Now, the initiative makes it legal to provide such assistance. Taking your life is called suicide. What could be more clear?

In the medical community, it looks like “physician-assisted suicide” has been used for some time to describe Oregon’s law. And the Washington State Medical Association on its homepage says, “Washington has become the second state to legalize physician-assisted suicide.”  (But, the WSMA also opposed the initiative.)

I asked Colin Fogarty how he handles this issue. He covered Oregon’s lethal prescription initiative for many years for Oregon Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio. (He now edits stories heard on several public radio stations, via the Northwest News Network.) He says they had frequent newsroom debates, but came down on the side of “assisted suicide,” because it seemed the most clear and accurate.

Those who campaigned for the initiative say the word “suicide” has negative connotations. And they say the people authorized to take the lethal prescriptions are already diagnosed as being in the process of dying. So, the medication is hastening their death, not exactly causing it.

I’m sympathetic to this argument. If I’m dying of cancer, and I speed up the process by a month or two, you still might say I died of cancer. Under the law, my death certificate must list the underlying terminal disease. But, you’re also leaving out part of the story, so it doesn’t feel completely transparent.

The news business is a little different from the legal business.  Our credibility depends on being transparent and straightforward. So, for now, we’re sticking with “physician-assisted suicide,” but we’ll do our best to also include phrases such as, “the Death with Dignity Act,” or “aid in dying.”


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