“Right to Die with Dignity” by Alli Fuqua examines not only the controversial issue of assisted suicide, but also the ways that specific phrases become politicized. Offering a nuanced analysis of each, Fuqua highlights how the phrase “right to die” has been historically used, in comparison to the phrase “death with dignity.” The author not only identifies a controversial issue to write about, but is also able to keep the scope of the paper narrow by selecting a small slice of the debate for discussion (how the two phrases are used in political debate). This essay easily prompts debate as well; in fact, in our own editorial meetings we debated the merits of “death with dignity” from a variety of perspectives: Is the right of an individual to take their own life inalienable, or does such ability make it easy to ignore the larger structural issues of illness and disability? Do we define “quality of life” too narrowly, from perspectives that ignore the ways that illness and disability might change the type of lives we lead, but not the quality? Such debate is exactly the type of work that an argument essay like this ought to elicit. Readers should also note that this author is using Council of Science Writers (CSE) documentation style.
As fortunate as many humans have been with the advancements of technology and medicine, a grand majority of the time these advancements have bestowed difficult, sometimes controversial, questions for us to ponder. One such question that has ripened with these advancements is should a terminally ill person have the right to take their own life peacefully with doctor assistance? Should they have a choice if their quality of life would decline so that you could argue that in their final days they would not truly be living? This question has been summed up in just a few short words–a battle cry for those facing this question: Death with Dignity. This phrase is rather fresh in the media considering what its original saying was: Right to Die. Both stir conversation and are used to drive the arguments forward.
When researched within Google Trends 1, the usage of these phrases, “Death with Dignity” and “Right to Die” peaked in the media at very particular times. During 2005, the phrase “Right to Die” soared through the media during Terri Schiavo’s case where her husband pleaded that she be taken off of her feeding tube since she had been in a vegetative state for over a decade and showed no signs of improvement and deserved to find peace. Despite her family fighting against Schiavo’s husband, he won the case. Terri was ordered to be taken off of her feeding tube and died thirteen days later. Even after her death, Schiavo’s family still remained vocal about this subject and Terri’s brother, Bobby Schindler, wrote about his sister’s last few days. Contradictory to what a majority of people were told, he describes her death in his article, “I Will Never Forget the Look of Horror on My Sister Terri Schiavo’s Face the Day She Died,” as one of suffering rather than peace. He uses the phrase “Right to Die” as if he were talking about a metastasizing tumor. He says, “What we do know is that we have a very active and aggressive Right to Die movement…After Terri died, my family’s experience, contesting this powerful Right to Die movement, led us to establish the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network.”2 The words active, aggressive, and powerful make the phrase sound like a force to be reckoned with. It develops more than a negative connotation– almost one of fear. Something that’s described as active, aggressive, and powerful stimulates an image of something out of control and harmful, and typically what we fear most is what we cannot control. Schindler later says, “How has the Right to Die agenda been able to efficaciously shift our attitudes to the point that is has become everyday practice to starve and dehydrate a person to death? The issue may see complex, however it seems to me that the answer is very clear. It is because they lie.” He uses the phrase “Right to Die” as if it were a tool for brainwashing, and quite clearly attacked those who are in favor of this argument by calling them liars. Schindler goes on to explain how there was nothing “peaceful” and “painless” about how his sister died, contrary to what the media said. This further darkens the phrase’s connotation during Schindler’s piece and then drives an emotional appeal of empathy for this man and for his family. Coupling the phrase’s connotations makes the campaign for Right to Die sound horribly barbaric, making the emotional appeal of empathy that much stronger. Perhaps the piece would have been written differently if we could have understood Terri’s perspective, and it wasn’t until 2014 that we were able to possibly catch a glimpse of it.
Based off of Google Trends 1, following 2005 the phrase “Right to Die” lessened more so each year until 2014. A new and polished phrase acted as a companion to this argument. The phrase “Death with Dignity” was used as a battle cry for another patient having to undergo unforgiving circumstances. Twenty-nine year old Brittany Maynard was diagnosed terminally ill with brain cancer and was given six months to live. Knowing the quality of her life would drastically deteriorate in the last months of her life, and not wishing for her family to watch her in pain, Brittany chose Death with Dignity and would decide what day she wanted her life to end before she was no longer Brittany. This account significantly contrasts that of Terri Schiavo’s brother. Brittany talks about Death with Dignity as almost a beacon of hope in her article, “My Right to Death with Dignity at 29,” when she says, “I quickly decided that Death with Dignity was the best option for me and my family… Having this choice at the end of my life has become incredibly important. It has given me a sense of peace during a tumultuous time that otherwise would be dominated by fear, uncertainty and pain.”3
She builds a more positive connotation around this phrase, a practically grateful connotation, because it’s able to provide a mode of control in the moments of her life where she had no control at all. This is a far cry from how Schindler presented Right to Die, as if it were out of control, and yet Death with Dignity is what is giving control back to Brittany. Even though it is presented in a different light, there is a still a strong melancholy undertone through it all. It’s terrible for anyone to have to make such a decision and not only is our empathy impacted as it was in the previous article, but more questions of our own mortality and final wishes stir in our heads. These questions are capable of making us ponder our ideological stances. For example, no rational person would want to prolong the suffering of another but many may not believe in ending any life no matter the circumstance based on religious grounds. Where are we willing to change, and where will we remain firm in our ideology? In reference to Death with Dignity, Maynard her closes her article with, “I can’t imagine trying to rob anyone else of that choice.”3 Because of her phrasing, to rob anyone, makes the Death with Dignity choice sound like something precious, something worth protecting, because naturally if there is something worth robbing then there has to be value to it. This further amplifies her already positive connotation of the phrase and closes her piece with a sense of secure faith in her choice. Her argument was unwavering, personal, and has brought exceptional recognition to Death with Dignity ever since.
To shed an entirely different light on the matter, cartoonist Jesse Springer drew the cartoon “Okay” depicting a more mocking perspective. The cartoon shows heaven with two angels standing beside each other, one young and one much older. The young angel asks, “So…It’s okay that I chose death with dignity?” The older angel, who can be interpreted as God, responds, “Not only that– I think you’re going to like the executive branch much better up here.”4 It’s worth noting that at this time the Supreme Court had found that the Bush administration had over-stepped their boundaries by trying to reverse Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act with the Federal Controlled Substance Act. Not only is Death with Dignity used in a satirical manner, but it is also used to mock the political confrontation that came with it– not to mention the grand sense of acceptance and understanding of the young angel’s decision addresses some of the religious confrontation as well. So it may be presented as satirical to make the topic seem more approachable and not so morbid, but packs a loaded message of acceptance and respect for other’s decisions and rights despite any religious or political qualm you have with the subject. This addresses some of the pride we have in our ideological stances, that this pride we have in whatever it is we may believe should be shared so that others may know how proud they can feel. Yet where is the line between genuinely wanting to share your pride and oppressing others into your beliefs?
Another cartoon shows the rather obvious side of the argument favoring Right to Die, yet it’s the obviousness that makes such a striking argument in the first place. David Fitzsimmons drew a cartoon called “Right to Die” with a woman holding a sign that says, “Support the right to die for the terminally ill,” while wearing a prominent, “Vote yes to assisted suicide” button on her blouse. However, next to her is a rather bleak looking man carrying a sign that reads, “I support the right to needlessly suffer.” The woman looks at the man and tells him, “At least you’re honest.”5 Just as satirical but slightly darker in showing a more patronizing connotation to the argument for those against the Right to Die campaign, the phrase “needlessly suffer” is a rather blunt and callous take on the opposing side, where others may have worded it, “I support the right to preserve life.” However, because of the word choice, it makes the Right to Die campaign seem like the humane and obviously “right” choice when it comes to this debate. No rational person wants to campaign for the suffering of others, and so why would you fight against the Right to Die campaign? The word choice does build a more positive connotation for the Right to Die, and also appeals to our basic morality, but it’s not accurately representing the opposing side of the argument. Most likely someone who is opposed to the Right to Die campaign isn’t against it because they want people to suffer, but because of other ideological positions, as we’ve discussed. It’s insulting those opposed, making them seem like cruel, bleak, protesters– developing quite the biased perspective. This cartoon, in fact, would most likely drive the people arguing over this issue further away from understanding and acceptance which was what Springer was promoting in his cartoon. This is not to say that Springer didn’t have his share of bias within his piece– there was certainly a strong hint of where he stood on the subject– however, it wasn’t presented to the point of oppressing one of the sides of the argument. This portrayed the phrase “Right to Die” as the morally superior choice, but to a fault.
Over the years the phrases “Right to Die” and “Death with Dignity” have been used across various texts for various reasons, only making their meaning/connotation all the more complex. As woeful as the topic is, these phrases will most likely continue to morph and grow more with the years to come as more advancements in technology and medicine progress.
- Google, Inc. Google trends [internet]. 2012 September 7. [cited 2015 October 9].
- Schindler. B. I will never forget the look of horror on my sister Terri Schiavo’s face the day she died [internet]. Lifenews; 2015 March 30. [cited 2015 October 12]. Available from http://www.lifenews.com/2015/03/30/i-will-never-forget-the-look-of-horror-on-my-sister-terri-schiavos-face-the-day-she-died/
- Maynard. B. My right to death with dignity at 29 [internet]. CNN; 2014 November 2. [cited 2015 October 12]. Available from http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/07/opinion/maynard-assisted-suicide-cancer-dignity/index.html
- Springer. J. Okay. Springercreative.com; 2006 January 18. [cited 2015 October 15]. Available from http://www.springercreative.com/?cartoon=121&search=suicide
- Fitzsimmons. D. Right to die. The Cagle Post; 2014 November 4. [Cited 2015 October 17]. Available from http://www.cagle.com/david-fitzsimmons/2014/11/right-to-die-2