For the pro-life side to gain any traction against legalized euthanasia, it must “sanitize” its language and frame the debate in non-religious terms, said ethicist Margaret Somerville. Photo by Evan Boudreau.

Euthanasia opposition needs to be framed in non-religious terms

  • October 15, 2014

TORONTO - In the fight against legalized euthanasia, Margaret Somerville said pro-lifers must “sanitize” their language, mostly by framing the debate in non-religious terms. 

She said people should use  terms that are the least offensive, even if that means mimicking the opposition and dancing around what is truly being said.  

“I would urge you not to talk about sanctity of life because that makes it religious and we need it to be a general societal concept that everyone buys into whether or not they are religious,” said the professor of law and bioethics at McGill University in Montreal. “We should talk about respect for life and argue that that requires us to not intentionally take life and that is why euthanasia is not acceptable.” 

Her words come on the heels of the Supreme Court of Canada hearing arguments in the Carter case to strike down euthanasia laws as well as a poll commissioned by a pro-euthanasia organization called Dying with Dignity that claimed 84 per cent of Canadians support professionally governed euthanasia as an end-of-life care procedure. The Ipsos Reid survey gathered responses to questions framed by Dying with Dignity from more than 2,500 people across Canada. 

These findings, which also claimed 80 per cent of Catholics surveyed support euthanasia, can be dismissed almost entirely because the language used is intended to cause confusion, said Somerville. The pro-euthanasia movement would rather use terms such as medical aid in dying, the terminology used in Quebec’s Bill-52, instead of euthanasia because of the stigma surrounding the word, said Somerville. 

Director of Dying with Dignity Jack Pasht denies this claim pertaining to the latest poll.  

“We did exercise best efforts and we did spend a lot of time working with Ipsos Reid trying to get a balanced wording so that it would not produce a biased result because we did not want to undermine the validity,” said Pasht. “(In the survey) it was medically assisted death and maybe medical aid in dying although we are very comfortable with the language of euthanasia as well.” 

In the poll, participants were asked if they supported or were against a number of statements, including: “Doctors should be able to help someone end their life if asked” and “A person should not be forced to endure drawn-out suffering.” 

Pasht continued by saying that the pro-euthanasia movement is willing to use whatever language opponents want them to use. 

“In all issues language can inflame and help polarize. (But) I’m not too concerned about the language side of it. Whether a group would prefer to call it suicide or not is not all that important to us,” said Pasht, who expects it is only a matter of time — he guessed within the next two years — “before some form of medical aid in dying is going to be legal throughout Canada.” 

This isn’t a question of religion versus secularism but rather a question of choice, so wording and terminology shouldn’t matter because “the vast majority of Canadians want everybody to have choice,” he continued. 

“It isn’t pro-religion or anti-religion, it’s about choice,” he said. “The 84 per cent do not want to force the 16 per cent to die in their particular way and I don’t think the 16 per cent should try to prevent the 84 per cent from having choice at the end of their life. This is really about freedom of moral choice.” 

But Somerville said the pro-euthanasia movement is blinded by the word choice to the risk of depleting human dignity through euthanasia. 

“They are totally obsessed with choice,” she said. “Fundamental to the euthanasia movement is that you own your own body, you’ve got a right to autonomy and self determination therefore you own your life and therefore if you choose not to have it any more you’ve got a right to put it to an end. (For) the pro-euthanasia people ... if you are suffering you have lost all of your dignity, they term it in words that say we will remedy our loss of dignity by putting you out of your undignified situation.

“To legalize euthanasia is not an incremental change as they seem to think it is. It is a seismic and radical change in one of our most important values which we base our society and civilization, that is, the value for respect of human life.” 

Even words the two sides share, specifically suffering, are sources of conflict. Somerville said pro-lifers view suffering as adding value to life whereas those who support euthanasia view it as stripping meaning away from life — further reason for pro-lifers to modify their vocabulary, she added.  

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