“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.”


Envisioning Tsunamis

While I was learning about massive tsunamis this past week, for stories on KPLU and a show called The World, there were some memorable tidbits:

– Waves 90-feet high on the Cascadia Subduction Zone!  Not sure where that is?  It’s basically the Pacific coast from Humboldt, California through Oregon and Washington, to southern British Columbia.  If you’ve been paying attention, you already know it’s not only an earthquake zone, but a major tsunami zone.  The fault is very similar to the one that ruptured near Sumatra on December 26, 2004.  And since then, geologists in the Pacific Northwest are adjusting their hazard maps to allow for the possibility of 60-90 foot waves in some coastal towns.

When will the next catastrophic wave come?  Ahh, that’s what everyone wants to know.  This week’s news is that it’s been about 600 years between big tsunamis in Sumatra and Thailand.  As Sandy Doughton put it in The Seattle Times, that dates it back to the era of Joan of Arc.  It’s long enough for the rise and fall of a civilization.  You can see the evidence, as it’s beautifully preserved north of Phuket, Thailand.  This photo shows the layers of light colored sand from tsunamis, and dark colored soil that builds up in the centuries in between.  The woman is a Thai scientist, Kruawun Jankaew,  who worked with Brian Atwater of the USGS and University of Washington.

phohto by Brian Atwater, USGS/UW

photo by Brian Atwater, USGS/UW

Along the Pacific coast, we also measure in centuries.  The last one hit in January of 1700 (the subject of fantastic sleuthing and science by Atwater and recounted in his book, The Orphan Tsunami of 1700).  Going further back is less precise, and it may be anywhere in the range of 300-1,000 years between big tsunamis.  We could be due now — or it could be beyond our great-great-grandchildren.  The fault-lines don’t follow much of a schedule.

– There was no epicenter in 2004.  The 2004 Sumatran disaster was huge in many ways.  At magnitude 9.2, it’s one of the biggest earthquakes ever recorded.  And the fault rupture was nearly 1,000 miles long (as if a single earthquake stretched from Seattle to San Francisco).  As Atwater put it, we normally use an image of the quake and tsunami that’s like a pebble dropped into a pond, rippling out in circles.  Here’s an example used by the United Nations and the US Agency for International Development

from USAID website "Tsunami Reconstruction"

from USAID website, Tsunami Reconstruction

But this is wrong.  It’s more like someone threw a long log into the pond — and the tsunami waves rippled out primarily in two directions.  Instead of a red dot and circles, imagine a long red line, with waves emanating to the left (Sri Lanka) and right (Thailand).   And, if you’re still following this, along Washington and Oregon, we should expect something similar, with a long section of the fault rupturing.