I am a bit of a stickler for how we use words, especially in the context of hot-button issues like euthanasia and assisted suicide. We can’t settle these issues without debating them and we can’t debate them if we are not talking about the same thing. In an otherwise excellent article in this morning’s Ottawa Citizen, Naomi Lakritz writes:
The killing of Tracy Latimer was not euthanasia. It was murder. Euthanasia is also known as assisted suicide. Tracy did not commit suicide, let alone ask for assistance in doing so.
True, but euthanasia is not also known as assisted suicide, at least not in today’s academic literature in bioethics. With assisted suicide, a physician provides the means or information necessary for a person to end his or her own life. Physician-assisted suicide (PAS) also describes situations like Sue Rodriguez’ where the patient is able to express a desire to end his or her own life but unable to perform the required actions. Suicide is no longer criminal in Canada and the sticky issue with PAS is whether or not physicians should be allowed to facilitate it. Another sticky issue with PAS lies in the validity of someone’s desire to die. Is it a desire to die or a fear of suffering?
Euthanasia refers to the termination of someone’s life by another for the purpose of ending that person’s suffering. Accordingly, if PAS is technically suicide, euthanasia is technically murder and both should be debated as such. Suicide is legal in Canada but assisted suicide is not. Accordingly, we oppose PAS by arguing that the presence of a third party no longer makes it a private decision. Since euthanasia is murder (or at least should be), we oppose it by arguing that disabled life in any way, shape or form, is as valuable as another. One of the sticky issues with euthanasia is precisely the lack of active involvement in the decision by the person whose life is to be ended. That person may have expressed a desire to be “euthanized” in the past, but the actual life-or-death decision is made by an external party. This is in great part why the Latimer debacle is so worrying for disabled Canadians: once you let able-bodied people decide what a life worth living is, you eliminate the experience of disability from the decision-making picture.
All this to say, both are wrong for similar reasons. But that doesn’t make them synonymous.