Words often have powerful meaning, and the debate over terminology used in a ballot measure and in news reports could well determine the fate of Washington's Initiative 1000, known by its supporters as "death with dignity" and by critics and some in the media as "physician-assisted suicide" or simply "assisted suicide."
Those terms won't be on the ballot itself, however, due to a decision by Thurston County Circuit Judge Chris Wickham, who rejected both terms and ordered the ballot subject to be: "Initiative Measure No. 1000 concerns allowing certain terminally ill competent adults to obtain lethal prescriptions." That's what you will see when you vote.
Anyone who writes on this topic enters contested territory. My Crosscut article of Sept. 18 has drawn two dozen comments; one was from an official of Compassion and Choices of Oregon, a leading advocate of the Washington initiative, which is modeled on an Oregon law. Crosscut follows Associated Press style, which uses the term "physician-assisted suicide," a style my article followed. My Oregon correspondent disagreed with the term. "That term is inaccurate and value laden, and represents a sort of advocacy journalism which I don't think you intended," she wrote, referring me to a style guide of her organization, which seeks to avoid the term "suicide."
How deep is the division on this matter? Advocates pro and con have their own polling, but two national polls by independent organizations agree that the nation is evenly divided. According to the Gallup Organization's May 10-13, 2007 poll, 49 percent of Americans say physician-assisted suicide is morally acceptable, while 44 percent say it is morally wrong. Since this specific question was first asked in 2001, the percentage of Americans saying assisted suicide is morally acceptable has averaged 49 percent, with a low of 45 percent and a high of 53 percent. A Harris poll, also conducted in 2007, showed 39 percent in favor and 31 percent opposed to physician-assisted suicide.
Both national polls used the term "assisted suicide." Both supporters and critics believe that if the term "suicide," with all its negative connotations, is removed, support increases. Thus the ballot challenge by opponents of I-1000, and the importance of Judge Wickham's ruling.
The ballot language is "starkly clinical," in the words of Carol Ostrom in the Seattle Times on Sunday. Ostrom's comprehensive look at I-1000, which comprised a full page, does not refer to "assisted suicide" or "death with dignity." In a next-day story on doctors' opinions, Ostrom again manages to avoid the controversial language. Yet the Times' online "Election '08" guide headlines I-1000 as "assisted suicide."
If the Times seems conflicted, most area newspapers seem to be comfortable with "assisted suicide." A random check of stories in major newspapers finds that the Tacoma News-Tribune on Sept. 3 used "assisted suicide" in a news story, The Oregonian used the term on Sept. 21 in a news story, and the Seattle P-I used it in a recent column by Joel Connelly and an earlier news story on former Gov. Booth Gardner.
Other newspapers are less consistent. In two July stories, the Everett Herald used "assisted suicide" in an AP story, and "right to die" in a staff-written story. The Yakima Herald-Republic, also in July, used two stories by the same staffer, one with "aid in dying," the other with "assisted suicide."
If the AP Stylebook is the "bible" for mainstream newsrooms, apostasy has been shown on this question by several of the region's papers.
Perhaps the challenged terms are best avoided, because the nature of this procedure is complex. Certainly one can have "death with dignity" without it being induced by prescription medication. But in the case of someone facing a diagnosis of imminent death accompanied by pain, loss of control, and personal dignity, an option of leaving this world via self-administered medication certainly is more "dignified" than ending it with a gunshot or leaping from a building. We are reminded that people for centuries have taken end-of-life into their own hands.
In the United States, Suicide.org reported that in 2005, 32,607 people ended their lives by suicide; Oregon ranked tenth in per-capita suicides, with 560 who chose some method other than physician-assisted death — only 38 used the Oregon law in 2005. Did these Oregonians commit suicide in the same way we view those who shoot themselves, or is something very different going on here? Certainly all 598 died, but the circumstances of death were vastly different.
Call it what you may.