Author: Women for Faith & Family


Euthanasia is "an action or an omission which of itself or by intention causes death, in order that all suffering may in this way be eliminated". (Declaration on Euthanasia, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1980, Part I.)

"No distinction has been made between intentionally starving a person and stabbing him to death. Even if this is done with a good intention, e.g. out of mercy, it has been considered wrong." (John S. Connery, SJ, The Ethics of Withholding/Withdrawing Nutrition and Hydration, Linacre Quarterly, Feb. 1987, 17.)


Active euthanasia indicates "commission," or doing something (such as giving a lethal injection of drugs) which actively and directly causes death. The Hemlock Society and the Society for the Right to Die (both euthanasia advocacy groups) and a growing contingent within the medical establishments of America and a few other countries believe that active euthanasia should be promoted as a "right". Euthanasia or Death with Dignity legislation has been proposed in several states. In the minds of advocates of euthanasia, "assisted suicide" is also a "right" and should be given government approval.

Passive euthanasia is omission of some ordinary treatment or care of a patient (such as withholding or cessation of medication, treatment or care) thereby intentionally causing or hastening death. This is becoming an issue of concern to many people now because some regard providing basic food and fluids to a disabled person as "treatment."

We need to consider the way attitudes and even deeply held convictions can be influenced by our manner of speaking about them -- even by the words we use.


"All social engineering is preceded by verbal engineering", as Catholic moral theologian William Smith has said. The words we use seriously affect our belief about human life and the reality and worth of the human being. George Orwell, in his essay Politics and the English Language maintained that the decline of language has acelerated the general decline of civilization.

Whenever we use vague, inaccurate, or incorrect language, the result is always confusion, misunderstanding and error -- whether or not this is intended. But there is a growing tendency, in our society, to politicize the language we use by consciously choosing imprecise or faulty words in order to cover up a reality which makes us uncomfortable. Most of us unconsciously pick up these words and use these phrases.


A notable example of this manipulation of language is the use of euphemisms (literally, 'high speech'.) The purpose of euphemism is to conceal an unpleasant truth or a serious moral problem behind an acceptable-sounding word or phrase.

We have become accustomed to hearing an abortion called "termination of pregnancy," an unborn baby called a "product of pregnancy," a "mass of tissue," or the technical term 'fetus' in order to distance us from the reality of what is actually happening to a living and vulnerable human being within the mother's body. We have grown used to hearing the killing of an unborn child called a 'right,' and to deliberately distorted uses of the words 'freedom' and 'choice.'

Political use of euphemism is seen in the changing of names of euthanasia advocacy organizations. During the 1970s the Euthanasia Society of America was renamed Society for the Right to Die, and the Euthanasia Education Council became Concern for Dying


Persistent vegetative state" [PVS] is a phrase which is currently being much misused. It was coined in the late 1970's by New York neurologist, Fred Plum, to describe the condition of unresponsive and evidently non-cognitive, apparently unconscious (but not comatose) brain-damaged people, who are neither terminally ill nor dying, who have periods of sleeping and waking, and have normal respiratory, circulatory and digestive functions.

Some severely mentally disabled patients who have been diagnosed as "PVS", have regained full consciousness; and many care-givers of some supposedly PVS patients report a variety of meaningful responses (crying, laughing at jokes, responding to directions, &c.) which evidence "cognitive function".


Other examples of deliberately dehumanizing terms used to describe severely brain-damaged people are "vegetative existence," "irreversibly comatose," "non- person," "living shell," "biological remains of a human being," "biologically tenacious," "irretrievably inaccessible to human care," "non- cognitive/affective" and simply "vegetable."

These terms are now being used routinely to describe human beings who are not able to respond to their environment in a way which is perceptible to others. Such terms are now being applied also to conscious but severely mentally disabled people.

These euphemisms draw attention away from the basic humanity of the person, and focus attention on the burdensome and hopeless nature of the disabled person's existence. The life of a person who is referred to in these dehumanizing terms is also devalued. It then becomes more acceptable to say that if the quality of life is diminished, if a person cannot be expected to be restored to a productive or affective condition, then the person does not merit continued care.

A person's basic right to life thus becomes his right to die with dignity. Robbed of the innate dignity accorded to every human being, the person's continued life will then become wrongful living, and will require aid in dying.

All of these terms must be avoided because each devalues the basic humanity of the person.


In medicine, and in Judeo-Christian moral teaching on euthanasia, extraordinary means is a treatment offering a patient no reasonable hope of benefit, or which involves serious danger of death, or only a precarious and burdensome prolongation of life.

Ordinary means are those which offer a patient a reasonable hope of benefit without serious danger or excessive burdens. Ordinary means contains the concept of minimal means -- ordinary care and/or treatment, but which the method of delivery to a patient, in unusual circumstances, could be called extraordinary. Use of a feeding tube in providing nutrition and hydration (food and water) would be an example of minimal means.

Food and fluids are not considered "extraordinary" however they may get into the patient, except when their delivery may cause an already dying patient more pain than benefit. (Ref. William B. Smith, "Judeo-Christian Teaching on Euthanasia: Definitions, Distinctions and Decisions", Lincare Quarterly, Feb, 1987:28.)