What's in a name? Responding to Dr Syme.


I sent this article to the newspaper mentioned below in response to an opinion article by Dr Rodney Syme in Victoria:

George Orwell once observed that, "Political language... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

Language, as Rodney Syme noted on the pages of The Saturday Paper (The language of euthanasia, Jun 14), is important; and the consideration of the language we choose to employ, particularly in the euthanasia debate, is an important part of any discussion. But as Orwell indicates, adopting a politically motivated lexicon that is foreign to the average punter can produce (and is likely intended to produce) the kind of sophistry that inverts both morality and logic towards a perverse outcome.

Syme may well claim some sort of epiphany in now eschewing the term euthanasia (and assisted suicide) from his vocabulary and, to his credit, he does describes an act of euthanasia accurately in his article.

Up until quite recently all bills brought before Australian parliaments were either about euthanasia or both euthanasia and assisted suicide (including the failed Tasmanian Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill). In a wry sense, perhaps Syme is paying a compliment of sorts to those like myself who have campaigned against his agenda and that of pro-euthanasia groups across the country over all these years that no such bill (apart from the short-lived Northern Territory Act)has ever been successful. And there is certainly a sense in which activists, pro and con, will - even if begrudgingly - acknowledge the determination and application of their most trenchant foes.

And Syme, like any thoughtful activist, has looked to overseas trends and developments to try and find an approach that is likely to be more appealing both to the public and, importantly, to fifty-per-cent-plus-one of our legislators. Make no mistake; the leopard has not changed his spots - just his tactics.

But, if the snake oil salesman tried to sell you the same failed cure-all that you bought last year, only this time with a different name will it be any more potent? Will you be convinced?

Syme is ever the salesman. First he attempts to create confusion about the application and understanding of extant terms (euthanasia, assisted suicide), then he sells the virtues of his 'new-and-improved' product: 'voluntary assisted dying'.

I first came across this term a few years ago during a debate in Scotland. The pro-euthanasia groups there had, like our domestic associations, been searching for a new angle after a number of failed attempts. Like the term 'dignity in dying', 'assisted dying' doesn't explain a great deal; except, perhaps, that we might all agree that dignity and assistance in terms of how we are treated at the end-of-life are important. The reality that holding a hand, wiping a brow or ensuring that pain medication is doing its job also fit under these terms only serve to emphasise this point.

Syme goes into some detail about this 'voluntary assisted dying' and what he thinks it might look like. But just like euthanasia and/or assisted suicide bills in recent history, his description is essentially assisted suicide expressed in vague and imprecise terms; terms that are not and will never be good enough to provide absolute, solid guidance to doctors and law enforcement alike in determining who does and does not qualify. Terms like 'intolerable suffering' as Syme agrees, are entirely subjective as is 'reasonable relief'. This offers little protection for vulnerable people and virtually no guidance to the doctor. All he or she can do is to agree that the patient's life is not worth living - a terrible and soul-destroying conclusion.

Orwell understood the maxim 'he who controls the language controls the debate'. In his book, 1984 he develops a character incidentally called Syme who works at the 'Ministry of Truth' developing and espousing 'Newspeak', a new form of language also devoid of its normative meaning.

Some things simply don't change; euthanasia, assisted suicide and assisted dying remain 'ungood'.