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Week of: April 22, 2001

Is Anything Left That's Unthinkable?

by F.R. Duplantier

"The constant message of the new medicine is that some of us deserve greater care and concern than others of us."

"It is worth reflecting on what has become unexceptional in our medical and moral lives," observes author Wesley Smith in his new book, Culture of Death. "Twenty years ago, it would have been unthinkable to dehydrate people to death by removing their feeding tubes because they were cognitively disabled. It might even have been criminal. Today," he remarks, "it is routine in nursing homes and hospitals throughout the country. Fifteen years ago, legalized assisted suicide was virtually unthinkable in the United States and Canada. Today," Smith continues, "it is deemed justifiable, not only in Oregon where it is now sanctioned by law, but . . . elsewhere in the country. It was once unthinkable to procure organs from someone in a coma," he affirms. "Today, some of the most mainstream bioethicists and physicians in the organ transplant community dispassionately debate the issue in bioethics and medical journals."

Our growing ability to think the recently unthinkable is facilitated by the abuse of language. "The lexicon we adopt and the terminology we employ not only reflect our values but continue to shape them as well," declares Smith. "Thus, if we use disrespectful terms to describe other people," he argues, "these terms not only reveal our attitudes but reinforce them. Words also have tremendous power to mold public opinion," Smith continues. "Indeed, pollsters know that the answers to their questions will vary widely on the same topic depending on how the question is phrased. That," he concludes, "is why so much energy is spent on defining terms in political debate."

According to Smith, "Words and phrases have power to diminish and degrade human dignity to the point where some people become 'them' rather than 'us.' A classic example of this is the term 'vegetable' used to describe people with serious cognitive disability or persistent unconsciousness. To identify defenseless human beings in that dismissive way," he contends, "is to remove them from their community and expose them to the worst forms of oppression and exploitation."

Smith is wary not only of "disparaging language," but of euphemisms, as well, for they "suck truth out of debate, transforming the odious into the commonplace." He points out that "over the years euthanasia advocates have searched for terminology that will obscure rather than clarify the hard acts they propose to legalize. Organizations that once called themselves euthanasia societies renamed themselves, using soothing words such as 'compassion' and 'dignity' along with the language of rights, such as 'choice.'"

Smith emphasizes that we shall reap what we sow. "We all age," he affirms. "We fall ill. We grow weak. We become disabled. A day comes when our need to receive from our fellows adds up to far more than our ability to give in return. When we reach that stage of life," Smith asks, "will we still be cherished, cared for, valued? Will we still be deemed persons entitled to equal protection under the law? These are the questions that hang in the balance as we enter the new century."


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