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How should we describe ‘assisted dying’?

7 July 2014

3:40 PM

7 July 2014

3:40 PM

There is, I realise, no perfect, neutral way of describing ‘assisted dying’, the substance of Lord Falconer’s bill which comes up for its second reading on 18th July. ‘Right to die’ is a bit tricky; dying is one of those rights that are thrust upon us without our even asking. It’s part of the human condition; just wait long enough, and it’s yours. And as Jenny McCartney eloquently makes clear in her piece on the subject, it’s actually assisted suicide — the assistance being provided by a doctor – or if you prefer, killing by request. As for the safeguards in the bill about it being limited to those with no more than six months to live and with the informed consent of the would-be suicide, I put precisely as much store by them as I do by all the provisions in the Abortion Act providing for the most serious cases only and with the written consent of two doctors… and we know how that turned out.

But how we name the thing matters. I was staggered the other week to hear the BBC, on its much-admired PM programme, using the formula of ‘campaigners for the right to die with dignity’ in the bulletin and news report on the Supreme Court ruling on Paul Lamb and Jane Nicklinson (acting for her late husband Tony) and a third man, called Martin. The tone of the report was supportive of their case, but it was the way the implicit bias was manifest in the ‘dying with dignity’ bit that got me.

So, let’s aim for a form of words from broadcasters which isn’t patently one-sided. ‘Right to die’ and ‘assisted suicide’ may not quite capture the essence of the thing, but they’re probably the best we can do.

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