'Loaded words' must not be used

Let us be reasonable when discussing assisted death,  Ken Bragan writes.

We are now engaged in what is a very important debate on assisted death which, for our sakes, needs to be conducted well. It presents both a challenge and an opportunity.

The challenge is to be reasonable, which in my view requires not letting feelings hold too much sway and not using loaded words.

Matters of life and death stir strong feelings and whereas these feelings should be respected, they should not be allowed to affect reason and judgement. They should not play a decisive part. By loaded words I mean words that carry weight in addition to their literal meaning. There are three such words that could be used: homicide, suicide and euthanasia.

There should be no problem with homicide. It is the word used to designate one of man's worst actions and should have no place in this debate.When I was in general medical practice many years ago, on one or two occasions, as I recall it, I increased the dose of morphine given to someone suffering greatly in death knowing it could possibly bring life to an end. It did, but I think I was right in what I did. To call it homicide would surely be wrong.

Later, I spent many years working as a psychiatrist and endured some terrible suicides. The suicide I came to know was violent and destructive, usually committed in states of mental disturbance. However, I am not so sure about youth suicide.

My feeling is that it occurs in states of extreme alienation and that the cause rests as much on the head of society as on the individual. In any case, the word suicide should in my view have no place in this debate.

My first introduction to the word euthanasia was as a young man in the UK when news came out of the atrocities conducted by the Nazis in Germany which included large numbers of mentally subnormal people being euthanised.

Then there is the use of the word in medical research when animals that have been used are no longer needed and are euthanised. It is not right to use the word in this debate. Assisted death says it as it is.

As regards the opportunity that I mentioned, it has to do with mankind's spiritual state which I would say is at present very low, although there are some shining individual examples of the human spirit overcoming extreme adversity. I believe that if death of spirit were to be given as much attention and concern as death of body, it would be a step forward for mankind. When people truly long to die, the spirit has been broken.

For myself, I know that I would rather die with my spirit unbroken, which is what extreme suffering can do. If I come to be suffering greatly, if my life has become too much of a burden for myself and my family to carry, then I would like to give up my life in a way sanctioned by society.

Recently, I had some contact with a man suffering a lot while slowly dying. He was strong of spirit. I might say not a religious man. He died with dignity despite the suffering. It was a privilege to have contact with him. I'd say, thank God his spirit was not broken.

Ken Bragan, of Wanaka, is a retired psychiatrist and author.


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