Human Exceptionalism

Language Matters: Court Did Not Authorize Euthanasia in South Korea

One of the great difficulties we have in debating important cultural and ethical issues is the lack of a common frame of reference. Or to put it another way, when language is used very sloppily–whether negligently or intentionally–it becomes almost impossible to adhere to precise definitions and understand crucial distinctions that are prerequisites to informed and rational debate.

Sometimes this is an advocacy tactic. Thus, proponents for unfettered embryonic stem cell and cloning research intentionally changed the language of the debate in order to win public support–aided and abetted by a completely in the tank media. Thus language describing embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning issues was intentionally devolved into mere “stem cell research.” As a consequence, adult stem cell breakthroughs, also called “stem cell research,” are often thought to be embryonic. Stories about the need for human eggs for “stem cell research” often do not let readers know that the issue involves the creation of human embryos via somatic cell nuclear transfer. This directed corruption of language is also a corruption of science and is profoundly disrespectful of democracy.

Sometimes, however, it is just a matter of sloppiness. Such is the story out of South Korea, headlines about which in several outlets have announced that a court has authorized “euthanasia.” No it hasn’t. It authorized removal of a patient from life support–a very different thing. From the story:

A court on Friday approved a request for euthanasia for the first time in South Korea, telling doctors to take a brain-dead woman off life support at her family’s request…The landmark ruling acknowledged an individual’s right to die for the first time here, but rekindled debate on euthanasia. The current law bans any form of assisted suicide and sees the removal of a respirator from brain-dead patients as murder.

Two inapt terms leap off the page in this short quote. First, it seems the patient is unconscious, not “brain dead.” Second the issue is about whether life support can be removed from such people, not whether they can be actively killed. Sometimes life support is removed from people in PVS and the don’t die (unless that life support is food and fluids).

These issues are international and need a consistent use of language and terms. Otherwise, we will have chaos rather than informed and rational ethical debates. Indeed, the language of bioethics at the popular level is already so muddled by sloppy language, rank redefinition, and euphemistic argument (“aid in dying”) that engaging these crucial issues in the public square is already near the point of futility.


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