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State sidesteps 'suicide' in report.

Byline: Tim Christie The Register-Guard

If a terminally ill person takes an overdose of prescription medicine for the purpose of ending his or her life, what is it if not suicide?

Oregon public health officials, charged with producing an annual report on who is using the state's Death with Dignity Act, no longer will call the act "physician-assisted suicide," the term commonly used in medical literature, court filings and the news media since voters approved the law in 1994.

State officials recently decided to stop using the term after Compassion & Choices, an advocacy group for physician-assisted suicide, pointed out that state law explicitly states that the practice "shall not ... constitute suicide, assisted suicide, mercy killing or homicide."

State officials flirted briefly with "physician-assisted death," substituting it for "physician-assisted suicide" on its Web pages, but dropped it after a single day when opponents of the law objected.

Now, the state's Web pages, and subsequent annual reports will refer only to the Death with Dignity Act, leaving it to others to fight over what the practice should be called.

Calling it "physician-assisted suicide" was "perhaps a mistake we made years ago," given the language of the law, said Dr. Katrina Hedberg, public health physician with the state Public Health Division who helps compile the annual report. But "physician-assisted death" didn't quite work either.

"We thought that would be a neutral term and we were naive," she said. "It was not perceived that way at all, so we call it by the name of the statute."

Compassion & Choices made its case in an Aug. 22 letter to state official that said "physician-assisted suicide" "is value-laden and negatively biased language that perpetuates misunderstanding of Oregon law and policy."

Use of the term appears to be a technical violation of the law, does not follow legislative intent and implies that a crime is being committed, since assisting a suicide remains a felony under state law, the letter states.

In practice, "profound psychological differences distinguish suicide from actions under" the Death with Dignity Act, they said.

They also point to a 2005 Gallup poll that suggested the power of language. When asked if "doctors should be allowed to end the life of a patient who is suffering from incurable disease and wants to die" - which would be euthanasia, illegal under Oregon law - 75 percent of respondents said yes. When asked if doctors should help a patient "commit suicide" under the same circumstances, only 58 percent said yes.

The letter suggests use of the terms "aid in dying," "directed dying' or "assisted dying" in lieu of "physician-assisted suicide."

In an interview, George Eighmey, executive director of Compassion & Choices of Oregon and one of the letter's authors, concedes that when someone takes an overdose for the purpose of ending their life, "technically, of course, it's suicide." But many people who use the law to end their lives don't like the term physician-assisted suicide, he said.

"It's important to the people who use the law, in that it respects their choice, and they don't have that specter of something illegal," he said. "Many people have told me, it is an insult to call it suicide."

When Gayle Atteberry, executive director of Oregon Right to Life and a staunch opponent of physician-assisted suicide, heard the state intended to call the practice "physician-assisted death," she was outraged.

"When a person takes a deliberate action to end their life, that is the definition of suicide," she said. "A rose by any other name is still a rose. A suicide by any other name is still a suicide."

To call it something else, she said, is "a euphemism for what everyone knows is happening."

The conflict over language is nothing new in today's political discourse, said Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist in the School of Information at University of California, Berkeley, and a language commentator on NPR's "Fresh Air."

"There's no age that's been more obsessively concerned with language and its power," he said. "We argue what these things should be called" - suicide bomber vs. homicide bomber, gay marriage vs. civil union, death tax vs. inheritance tax.

He said he can understand why proponents would want to avoid the word suicide, which implies "irrationality and unbalance and moral disapproval," Nunberg said. "It's something you commit," like a crime.

But, he said, it's possible that, in time, if physician-assisted suicide becomes an accepted practice, `then `suicide,' when preceded by `physician-assisted,' will lose some of its sting,' he said.

A spot check with Oregon journalists who decide what things should be called in print indicates that they're in no hurry to change their usage from "physician-assisted suicide."

`We have thought about it and we feel `suicide' describes the act of taking one's life, so we'll stick with it - for the time being,' said Bryan Brumley, Portland bureau chief for The Associated Press, a wire service that provides news stories to the state's daily newspapers.

Bill Church, executive editor of the Statesman-Journal in Salem, said his editors haven't yet discussed the issue but probably will at some point.

`One of the deciding factors for us is, `which is a more accurate assessment of what happens?' ' he said. "We all recognize the power of semantics, particularly in how readers interpret stories and how we need to present them."

The Register-Guard will continue to use the terms "doctor- or physician-assisted suicide," News Editor Chris Frisella said.

"Physician-assisted death" is less specific and could be misconstrued to mean that a physician assisted in some other way, such as euthanasia, homicide or removal of life support at the family's request, he said.

"I recognize that no matter which phrase we embrace, we undoubtedly will be seen by some people as taking sides in a contentious debate," he said in an e-mail. "What we really are doing is choosing to err on the side of plain English."
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Title Annotation:Health; Officials decide that `physician-assisted death' doesn't quite work either
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 23, 2006
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