ASSISTED SUICIDE/EUTHANASIA activists are sure a restless bunch. They never seem able to settle on the right terminology to convince people to support legalizing mercy killing. First, it was euthanasia, a perfectly fine word that had a meaning generally akin to today’s concept of hospice before being hijacked by the right-to-die crowd in the early 20th century.
When “euthanasia” didn’t rouse people to march in the streets demanding a right to be killed if they get cancer, activists began using the terms “deliverance” and, more recently, “physician-assisted suicide” to assure a wary public that they would only be dispatched upon request. But apparently these terms don’t poll well, especially any term containing the word “suicide.” So, activists dropped “assisted suicide,” and replaced it with the currently favored euphemism, “aid in dying.”
Similarly—and for the same reasons—the names of mercy-killing advocacy organizations have changed over the years. Thus, what began as the Euthanasia Society of America in the 1930s, morphed in 1976 into the Society for the Right to Die, on its way in 1991 to becoming Choice in Dying (now defunct). The aptly called Hemlock Society meanwhile, decided that being named after a lethal poison was too candid and descriptive. So earlier this year it changed its handle to End of Life Choices, apparently on the theory that people reflexively react to the word “choice” in the way Pavlov’s dogs did the ringing bell.
And now, before the ink on End of Life Choices’s newly ordered stationary is even dry, it is merging with Compassion in Dying (CID). Compassion in Dying was originally a creature of Hemlock intended to facilitate assisted suicides. But it soon outgrew that role to become a key player in the passage of Oregon’s assisted-suicide law, catapulting it to national prominence.
The new blended organization is to be called Compassion and Choice. (Whew—it’s getting tough to tell the players without a program!)
Whatever name these ideologues go by, whatever advocacy terms they decide to employ, they remain committed true believers, steadfast in their dedication to transforming homicide into a legal “medical treatment.” Not only that, but some are not willing to wait for that (unwished for) event, volunteering to counsel and assist in the suicides of their fellow travelers. Thus, as Hemlock’s Winter 2003 newsletter Choices proudly reported, 32 members “died” in 2002 under the tutelage of Caring Friends, a cadre of Hemlock-trained counselors and assisted suicide facilitators. Knowing that members of Hemlock/End of Life Choices/CID/Compassion and Choice—or whatever they are calling themselves today—are fascinated by suicidal methods, Choices told readers that “thirty used the inhalation method” (most likely asphyxiation via helium and a plastic bag, now favored by suicide facilitators) “and two used the ingestion [overdose] method.”
NAMES MAY CHANGE but much of the new organization’s agenda still looks like that same old Hemlock. Thus, in C and C’s joint memorandum of intent—which introduces yet another advocacy slogan, “Dignity—Compassion—Control”—the group promises to push euthanasia legislation, and in the meantime, develop a “go to organization” that will “provide unified direct services” to “clients,” which, reading between the lines, would appear to include suicide counseling and facilitation along the lines of Caring Friends. However, following a strategy blazed in recent years by CID with some admittedly beneficial results, the new organization also hopes to boost its respectability by advocating for improved pain control and end-of-life care.
Knowing that this country is increasingly ruled by judges, Compassion and Choice also promises that it will seek to convince the courts to impose legalized assisted suicide on society via “constitutional litigation.” At the same time, without a hint of irony, the group assures supporters that it will “defend state laws” that permit assisted suicide.
Despite rumblings from the old guard—Hemlock founder Derek Humphry is reportedly unamused—the movement’s new leaders giddily call their merger “historic.” Perhaps. But the key question for euthanasia aficionados, and impatient movement funders will be whether the reunited Hemlock Society and CID will be able to jump-start the euthanasia/suicide movement out of its current doldrums.
This much is sure: Whatever name these organizations may call themselves, whatever euphemistic terms activists adopt as the spoonful of sugar to help the hemlock go down, and whatever ancillary areas of advocacy they engage in to give assisted suicide a mainstream face, the overriding and implacable goal of the movement will always be what it has been from its inception more than one hundred years ago—legalized killing as a legitimate answer to illness and human suffering. And that isn’t, nor will it ever be, a healthy prescription for America.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, an attorney for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His next book will be Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World, due out in the fall.