Human Exceptionalism

“Artificial Life” is Not “Real Life?”

The lexicon we use in discussing bioethical issues is important. And look how this newspaper does it in a poll to measure attitudes about refusing unwanted treatment. From the story:

PATIENTS’ lives are being artificially “extended beyond what they actually want for themselves”, Health Minister John Hill says. He is urging families to have a “serious debate” about the services terminally ill people want and need in the “last days of their lives”.

Mr Hill told The Advertiser keeping people alive with machines had a steep emotional and financial cost. “Certainly, when it comes to end of life–and this is not an argument for euthanasia, I don’t want to see it interpreted in that way– we do invest a lot of resources in keeping people alive beyond what they actually want for themselves,” he said.

“If you were to do a survey, the vast majority of people would say: ‘Look, I want to be let go. I don’t want to be strapped to a whole lot of machines and kept going artificially’. But if they don’t do that and they don’t have the conversation, then the machinery of health kicks in and you can artificially extend life just by using a whole lot of technologies for quite a long time…”

He rejected any suggestion that services would be capped, but said the right clinical decisions had to be made about what medical procedures were necessary. “I’m not saying people should have their lives shortened and it shouldn’t be something that’s imposed on people,” he said.

Refusing unwanted treatment is not the major problem anymore. Today, it is getting that kind of treatment when you want it. But look how the newspaper worded its poll on the issue:

Do you agree with the Health Minister?

Yes – Artificial life is not real life.
No – Life is the most precious thing.

But the minister never said that being on life support is “artificial life” that isn’t “real life.” He said that people should discuss what they want and don’t want. And he said that people shouldn’t receive life-support they don’t want, but also, that they shouldn’t be prevented from receiving the life supporting treatment they do want.

That’s not very controversial. But the wording of that poll sends a totally different message that is guaranteed to get the result the paper probably wants.

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