October Note From the President and CEO
Words do matter. Here’s why we avoid referring to medical aid in dying as death with dignity.
by Kim Callinan
October 21, 2021
The movement to improve care and expand options at life’s end has realized unprecedented growth in recent years. More and more people — lawmakers, policymakers, medical providers and administrators — are demanding a healthcare system that listens to and encourages the voices of patients and their families. This translates to a shared belief that medical aid in dying should be an accessible option in every state.
That shared belief does not necessarily translate to shared preferences. For most Americans, including a majority of movement supporters, medical aid in dying is not the preferred end-of-life care option; it is simply an option we passionately believe should be available to those who want it.
Compassion & Choices’ goal has never been to increase the number of people who use the option of medical aid in dying, but rather to ensure that eligible people who want the option are able to access the law. This means authorizing medical aid in dying in more states, improving the legislation and achieving greater acceptance of medical aid in dying within medicine.
This has always been the philosophy of Compassion & Choices. However, the words used within the movement haven’t always been clear in communicating this intention. As an example, the ballot initiatives in both Oregon and Washington were called “Death with Dignity” Acts. Washington, D.C., and Maine repeated that terminology.
The term “death with dignity” may be catchy, and therefore seemingly desirable; yet, it is problematic for a variety of reasons. Use of the label in reference to medical aid in dying can imply that the only dignified way to die is via medical aid in dying; and all other end-of-life options (hospice, voluntarily stopping eating and drinking, forgoing treatments and using life-prolonging treatments) are not dignified ways to die.
Compassion & Choices has never advocated for one end-of-life option over another or believed that one type of death has greater dignity than another. Core to our philosophy is that only the dying person, and if they so choose, in consultation with their loved ones and faith leaders, can define what constitutes a dignified death.
For this reason, we have tried to be more precise with our language, most notably with using “medical aid in dying” rather than “death with dignity.” Lawmakers in many of the authorized states have followed suit with the names of their statutes: End of Life Options in California, Colorado and New Mexico; Patient Choice and Control at the End of Life Act in Vermont; Our Care, Our Choice in Hawaii; and Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill in New Jersey.
While not as catchy, these names are more accurate and inclusive, and have contributed to greater adoption of medical aid in dying laws across the country. No doubt, with continued and increased attention to the adoption of policies and language that speak to diverse audiences, our progress will continue in the years to come.