Words can be violent and ugly, as these were:
“Froze to death,” I thought, have mercy on the parents: Do we really need to say they froze to death? Could we not write “died of cold-induced cardiac arrest”? I feel better thinking they died of cardiac arrest. Makes it sound quicker. But in the end, it still means they froze to death. And there is no way to wash-off the violence of dying alone in the cold.
It reminded me of a seminar I attended recently entitled “When is it ethical to withdraw nutrition and hydration from critically ill children?” or, in lay-person’s terms “When is it okay not to feed and give water to dying and/or very sick children?”
This time, the discussion involved a case study in neonatal intensive care where a chromosomal anomaly had not been diagnosed by prenatal genetic testing. One of my colleagues observed:
“This is problematic because the parents would have terminated the pregnancy had they known about the genetic anomaly. They had wide latitude to decide not to raise an impaired child while pregnant and lost that choice when the baby was born. One day, they could terminate the pregnancy for any reason. The next day they would be committing infanticide by withholding fluids and nutrition.”
The speaker, a well-known scholar and experienced physician, interrupted: “I don’t like using the word ‘infanticide.’” The conversation continued and I asked: “If food and water were discontinued, would death occur by starvation or would the baby die of its underlying condition?” Nobody seemed to see a material difference between the two but the speaker took issue with “starvation.” Apparently, he didn’t like that word either.
Words create images and form realities. We don’t like what “starvation” and “infanticide” suggest so we try to change their violent reality into something more manageable. In the end, there is no escaping the fact that denied food and water for long enough, genetically- impaired infants starve to death.
We can argue whether or not this is ethical but let’s not hide violence behind euphemisms. Sticks and stones may break my bones–and words can also hurt me. So be it.