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.

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 former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ. All views expressed herein are exclusively his own.

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  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Here is a strange thing – Let someone grant a deed or make a will on their deathbed and you will have an uphill task persuading the courts that they were “in liege poustie,” as the lawyers say, that is, in a sound and disposing mind.

    Again, a disposition by a dying person will readily be reduced on the grounds of facility and circumvention, when the court concludes that the act was such that it could only have been brought about by “persuasion and untrue representations, acting on a mind facile, or nervously anxious.” Indeed, that taking advantage “even by way of pressure or importunity” could be taken to amount to circumvention if the granter was facile enough. A patient’s deathbed legacy to their doctor will, in all but the most unusual circumstances, be reduced.

    Yet we are asked to assume that a person asking to be killed is acting freely and voluntarily and in their sound and sober senses.

    How are the two positions to be reconciled?

    • lifeknight

      Precisely. As in abortion, if it is such a common, necessary part of “health care” then it cannot be also a serious decision between a woman and her God. You cannot have it both ways.

    • Rock St. Elvis

      Excellent point. You can bet that, once “dignicide” becomes sacrosanct, the safest defense against an accusation of undue influence on a testator (or against a challenge to his testamentary capacity) will be to have a guy with “M.D.” after his name issue a lethal injection just after the requisite signatures are applied to the will.

    • How are the two positions to be reconciled?

      With a large dose of cognitive dissonance.

  • lifeknight

    Semantics! Excellent article; thank you! The constant use of “vegetative state” was the mantra of those writing about Terri Schindler Sciavo’s condition. We killed her by verbicide, dignicide, and “judicial homicide.” Truth does not matter if one’s goals are death.

    • The culture of death gives life to the polity of death.

    • Eamonn McKeown

      PVS. Persistent vegetative state. Science has silenced that.

  • Keith Cameron

    I have often wondered how I would face that great test of faith: The moment of my own Death. Will I go bravely, safe in the knowledge that my Lord is awaiting my arrival? Or, will doubt cast it’s hideous shadow and make me turn coward and beg for more life? Will my passing be peaceful, dignified or violent and sharp.

    Troubling questions. I think that people in the ‘murder movement’ have already showed the yellow stripe and seek though euthanasia the reassurance that we of faith take for granted.

    I don’t know the answers. I only know that I will go at my appointed time. I’ll not hasten the moment. I will breathe until my Lord wills it otherwise.

    • SnowCherryBlossoms

      Your comment brought to mind what St.Padre Pio said to his closest friend before he died. He worried whether or not he would be saved, that amazed me! So humble!

  • Rock St. Elvis

    The suffix “-cide” denotes killing, as in “suicide” (killing of self), “patricide” (killing of one’s father), “homicide” (killing of another human), etc. So “dignicide” must mean the killing of dignity.

    The word is quite apt after all.

    • Bro AJK

      My thoughts too.

    • NickD

      That’s exactly what I thought when I saw the word

    • Michał Raj

      It seems that the originator of this word (in the sense of dying with dignity) committed some reasoncide.

    • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

      The Law of Unintended Consequences. When euthanasia becomes ‘thinkable’ we have the situation of Christopher Reeves’ mother who passionately wanted to murder him because ‘she knew’ he would not want to live like this.It must have been ‘awkward’ with her afterwards. To pervert the mother-son relationship in this utilitarian way is certainly ‘dignicide’.

  • The first thing I thought of with the title of this article was that this is a very fitting description, for euthanasia is most certainly the death of dignity. There is nothing dignified in asking for euthanasia, and the doctor who gives it kills his own dignity as well.

    • SnowCherryBlossoms

      That is so very, very true!!

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    Government has shifted its allegiance from the impassioned attempt to ‘talk the suicide off the ledge’ and has joined the mob in the street below shouting, “JUMP! JUMP!”.

    • somebigguy

      Oh, well said, well said.

    • Pope St. John Paul II certainly turned an apt phrase with “culture of death”.

  • Seamrog

    A former colleague once commented on the declining health of St. Pope John Paul II – noting his slurred speach, shakiness, slumped posture, and drooling mouth, he commented “What a terrible way to die – why does he continue to come out in public like that? He just needs to fade away. I’d rather take myself out than go out like that.”

    Given the character of the man, I was not surprised at the comment.

    My inward reply was “I hope I have the courage to die like that.”

    • somebigguy

      Indeed, Seamrog. Your comment brings to mind a letter-to-editor I wrote defending then-senator Sam Brownback, who had introduced legislation in Congress outlawing euthanasia. It was in reply to an earlier letter by a Methodist minister:

      “That brings us to Rev. Gene Tromble’s derisive criticism of Sen. Sam Brownback’s effort to keep euthanasia illegal. Tromble watched his dying mother suffer for months, frustrated that law prohibited him from helping her ‘die with dignity.’ Having watched my mother die after years battling cancer, I feel for Tromble. However, my family understands the sanctifying, redemptive nature of suffering and its place in life. My mother offered up her terrible pain, uniting it with the crucified Christ’s; for her, it was a blessed opportunity for grace. Tragically, the rich theology of suffering— an essential, inescapable component of Christianity— is lost on most. Today’s culture of convenience seeks to avoid suffering by any means, even killing. But the intentional killing of the infirm is anything but death with dignity. It’s a repudiation of the very thing God embraced at His incarnation: our human nature.

      “Euthanasia makes pathetically small gods of those who commit it and lame draft animals of those who are ‘dignified’ by it.”

      • SnowCherryBlossoms

        What a wonderful comment!

      • fredx2

        I remember during the whole Terry Schiavo thing – the lawyer from the “Let’s Kill her” side was talking about making sure that she was allowed to die with dignity, etc etc. I then researched him on the internet to see what his background was. He wrote a book where he talked about flying on a commercial flight, and during the flight (he actually wrote this in his book) he said to himself “You know, with just my mind I could make this plane crash”.

        These are the people we are dealing with.

        • somebigguy

          Boggles the mind. We’re all gonna die one day; these people just can’t wait. And for what? Few of them believe in God and an afterlife.

          As for Terri’s husband, it’s telling how little was mentioned of his obvious motives; the media clearly was on the side of this greedy, mendacious adulterer.

        • Death with dignity = death without delay or inconvenience.

        • lifeknight

          Ah, yes. Mr. Felos.

    • SnowCherryBlossoms

      I believe he intentionally did this to show us it’s okay to suffer and die trusting our Lord! I believe he knew what was coming. God is so good!

      • somebigguy

        Talk about a witness to life!

      • Howard

        Well, he did not intentionally develop Parkinsons; it doesn’t work that way. And saying that he intentionally did not commit suicide is to say too little. No, I think there was purpose behind his suffering, but that it was God’s purpose, which St. John Paul willingly embraced.

        • SnowCherryBlossoms

          I meant he intentionally allowed himself to be seen by the world in his condition, he could have remained locked away but chose not to do this, not to be ’embarrassed’ by his condition.

    • Micael S.

      As a baby boomer who has been blessed with health for 59 years and having experienced the best healthcare in the history of mankind, I remind myself that 80 billion (est.) people have lived and died on this planet and the vast majority have died without suicide and unimaginable healthcare. if they can do it, so can we…

  • somebigguy

    Great one, John; thanks!

    And thank you, as well, for using a term I’ve used for years to describe the culture of death: anti-life. It’s the truly proper term for those who promote, practice or agree with abortion, euthanasia and contraception; lethal human experimentation, human harvesting, industrial manufacturing and genetic manipulation of human beings; population suppression through indoctrination and coercion.

    The term “anti-life” is all-inclusive… and, after all, we don’t want to offend those who always insist on inclusivity and tolerance!

  • SnowCherryBlossoms

    The value of suffering needs to be taught once again, as our Lord so clearly showed us. In a me me me society where everything selfish and self-centered is taught, encouraged and praised, the value of suffering has been lost. The Catholic Church is filled with treasures, the teachings of Christ and His saints on the value of suffering.
    Satan has introduced this way and so many will be lost following it.

  • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

    The inability or refusal to use the correct word to confront reality, the insistence on averting one’s gaze from the truth, is a hallmark of the post-Christian age. The French are experts at creating “nice-sounding” euphemisms. We recently discussed their term for horrifically violent Muslim majority “no-go zones” in decaying French cities. (They call them “zones urbaines sensibles” / “sensitive urbain areas.”) Similarly, the French almost never use their word for abortion (“avortement”). They prefer the almost harmless sounding IVG, or “interruption volontaire de grossesse” (“voluntary interruption of pregnancy”).

    • Eamonn McKeown

      Excuse my ignorance but don’t the French have very strict grammatical rules about their language? How are they so chauvinistic and delusional at the same time? Not a combative question just a frustrated one.

      • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

        When one loses one’s faith, one also loses one’s mind… eventually.

    • John O’Neill

      GK Chesterton once remarked that the term “birth control” which was becoming more popular in his time had very little to do with either birth or control.

      • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

        Ah, Chesterton! He is never dated, is he? His books seem to address man in the year 2015.

  • It was the Duchess and Humpty Dumpty who were the implicit and explicit wordsmiths. “Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves.” “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

  • pescher

    Many writers have addressed the (unintended?) meaning of “dignicide” but may not be aware of its origin. It was taken from a survey commissioned by The World Federation of Right To Die Societies whose purpose was to find a word to be used instead of “doctor assisted suicide”. Its preamble states “It is hard to believe, the English language has no word…” to mean “…hastening of death”. It offers the respondent a chance to indicate how much they liked/disliked some from the ff list: “self-deliverance”, “rational suicide”, “self-chosen death’ and “dignicide”. If we want to halt another euphemism from being introduced and accepted by society we must make this deception clear to all. Those who remember the introduction of abortion fifty years ago will recall euphemisms-such as “collection of cells’, “blob of tissue”, “product of conception”- and any other term to hide the reality of the humanity of the unborn from public scrutiny. Now however, the pro-abortionists admit that everyone knows it is a human being but a mother’s rights over-ride the baby’s right to live.