Suicide, Homicide, Verbicide … “Dignicide”

Mercatornet, a pro-life blog about end-of-life issues, has just reported the latest doublespeak percolating among the anti-life crowd: “dignicide.”

How to describe killing yourself, or getting somebody to kill you? “Murder” is so gauche in our voluntaristic, nominalistic culture in which the will defines reality: can you really be murdered if you agree to being murdered? (Yes, since acts have meanings independently of the intention of the actor. Slapping somebody in the face cannot be called an act of affection, numberless verbal reassurances to the contrary notwithstanding). “Suicide,” as the folks over at Mercatornet note, “evokes nooses, ovens, bullets, insecticide, and 20-storey buildings. … [It] radiates the baddest of bad vibes.” As they point out, when surveys ask people whether they approve of physicians assisting “suicide” versus physicians “end[ing] the patient’s life by some painless means,” support for the former plummets by over twenty percentage points. That clearly requires some verbal kabuki dance. A Canadian site hawks “dignicide” as another example of “innovative thinking [taken] to the next level.”

“Innovative thinking?” Nihil novi sub soli.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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A prophetic editorial back in September 1970 in California Medicine described the “semantic gymnastics” necessary to justify abortion, especially when confronted by the “scientific fact, which everybody knows, that human life begins at conception ….” The verbal trampoline act was needed, the journal said, because “the old ethic [of the sanctity of life] has not yet been fully displaced [by a quality of life ethic, so] it has been necessary to separate the idea of abortion from the idea of killing, which continues to be socially abhorrent.”

The same can be said today, congruo congruis referendo, for euthanasia.

“Euthanasia,” after all, carries bad vibes, even if called “voluntary.” The Nazis practiced euthanasia on the sick and infirm, and they also often wanted to brand it voluntary,” too. In America, we do it mostly to dogs.

And does anybody really believe it is “voluntary?” There’s ever more evidence to suggest that in Belgium and the Netherlands, where euthanasia has been tolerated for quite some time, folks are sometimes dispatched in … well, not the most voluntary of circumstances. One survey suggests that more than one in four Dutch doctors might countenance euthanasia for “existential” reasons, i.e., when a patient is just “’tired of living.’”  And, despite the intense, almost manic rhetoric about “personal choice,” “personal autonomy,” and “personal dignity,” we know that man is a social animal and that social expectations are quickly defined (usually downwards). In a society that so devalues suffering, will those who follows Dylan Thomas’s counsel “not [to] go gentle into that good night” become the oddballs who, eventually, may find their choices to be held as proof of their “incompetence,” proof they require the substituted judgment of others to effect what is “truly” in their “best interest?”

No, the old ethic that regards doctor as healer, enemy of sickness and death, still exists. That ethic has, of course, its value (since it is, at core, true) but it collides with much of modern “medicine” (especially gynecology) which had abandoned any objective standard of health and pathology, what is normal and what is not, in favor of patient wish fulfillment, often categorized as “autonomy.” Want your unborn child, even if he is suffering significant health issues? He’s a baby patient. Don’t want your unborn baby, even if he is healthy? He’s a “blob of tissue.” Even in Wonderland, Alice’s words hardly had such life-transforming (and death-dealing) possibilities.

But the image of doctor as enemy of sickness and death means there is some objective standard (including medical ethical standard) against which a physician measures what he does or does not do. But such an objective vision collides with the autonomy-cum-wish-fulfillment paradigm of “medicine” in which the patient’s wish is paramount and to which all else—medical norms, the decisions of medical personnel, and even physician’s consciences—must bend.

“Suicide,” after all, traditionally implied an unjustified decision to take one’s life. We have long since discarded the notion that God or my sovereign might have any claim (much less sovereignty) over my life. Moderns often tend to downplay suicide by suggesting that a person who tries to kill himself is somehow lacking in psychological freedom, somehow so mentally impaired, that he cannot be held fully responsible for his act.

But such an interpretation flies in the face of what the death peddlers are pushing: that a person can rationally decide to kill themselves and—in a truly consumer society—can rationally engage somebody else to provide the technical assistance to be killed. (It also flies in the face of the universal human experience of the instinct of self-preservation.) So “suicide,” too, has to go: it clashes with the paradigm shift being pushed. And, by dissociating it all from a more loaded term, it renders the task of getting society on board the euthanasia juggernaut that much easier. Change the terms and get a 20 percent bump in your Gallup Poll!

We see this in the beginning of life. “Pro-abortionists” have instead become “pro-choicers” (the “choice” politely never having to speak its name). Women bearing babies for others—even their own genetic flesh and blood—become “surrogates.” Fathers are sometimes fathers but sometimes mere “sperm donors.” Pregnancy starts at implantation, not fertilization, so that abortifacients can be redefined as “contraceptives” (because, as the Guttmacher Institute concedes, “language matters.” And so it goes. (William Brennan has expertly documented this phenomenon in his books, Dehumanizing the Vulnerable: When Word Games Take Lives and Confronting the Language Empowering the Culture of Death).

The changes at the beginning of life seem to have settled into a general status quo and, whenever to date that applecart seemed threatened, one could count on a federal judiciary to ride to the defense of an unrestricted abortion license. But the battle for killing at the end of life still needs to be won, at least in America.

Canada seems poised to cross that ethical Rubicon: part of the rationale behind the February 6 Supreme Court of Canada’s invalidation of that country’s criminal ban of assisted suicide was the Court’s contention that such a prohibition, when extended from “the goal of protecting the vulnerable from taking their life in times of weakness” to those “in a grievous and irremediable medical condition” was an unconstitutionally overbroad expansion of what “suicide” should encompass. In other words, banning suicide doesn’t mean banning all suicides. In the new order, not all suicides should be called suicides, not all homicides, homicides (or at least prosecutable as such).

The first step, however, must be the language. Because, as Paul Greenberg rightly pointed out, verbicide always precedes homicide … or, eh, “dignicide.”


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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