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Before the Vote on Assisted Suicide in Colorado, the Battle Over the Term 'Suicide'

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While Colorado voters decide what to do with a November ballot proposal legalizing assisted suicide, media outlets in the state debate whether they should use the word “suicide” to describe it.

The problem is the word “suicide.” Once you figure out which Coloradans are troubled by the “S” word being used in news reports about Initiative 145, and which are not, you can make a good guess as to how they plan to vote on the proposal in November.

People who oppose the Colorado initiative have put up billboards that proclaim, “Assisted suicide: You can’t live with it.”

But supporters of the law point out that its text does not include the word “suicide.”

The wording of the “End-of-Life Options Act” November ballot proposal explains that a “mentally capable adult Colorado resident who has a medical prognosis of death by terminal illness” would be able to receive medication that would be “self-administered to bring about death,” but the word “suicide” is never mentioned.

So, supporters of the “death with dignity” proposal, as they refer to Colorado Initiative 145, maintain there is no reason to use the word “suicide” in any news coverage related to the ballot question.

But KUSA 9News political reporter Brandon Rittiman told his viewers in August the Denver station would use the word “suicide” in its reports on the ballot initiative.

“Supporters of the measure argue the word ‘suicide’ is too friendly to the opposition because it may make you think of someone who ends their life for no good reason,” Rittiman said. “In contrast, the proposed law does require a reason: you’d need to be diagnosed with a terminal illness to get a life-ending prescription. But in plain English, that’s still ‘suicide.’”

However, the Columbia Journalism Review reported Lee Ann Colacioppo, the editor of the Denver Post, instructed her reporters to use the phrase “aid-in-dying” because that phrase is a part of Initiative 145.

She didn’t ban the use of the words “assisted suicide” because those words would be an accurate description of the proposal.

But Colacioppo wrote in a staff memo, “We know words carry meaning beyond what the dictionary says…. In this case, I am convinced that there is, fairly or not, so much stigma attached to the word ‘suicide’ that it has taken on a pejorative meaning.”

Is more lost by indecision than the wrong decision?

Several Colorado media outlets are still at loggerheads on this issue.

As of late August, Colorado Public Radio management was still trying to figure out what to tell its people. The editor of the Gazette in Colorado Springs, Vince Bzdek, said the paper had assigned a task force to study the phraseology. And, he said, other phrases will be considered.

“We will also consider doctor-assisted death and doctor-assisted dying in our discussion,” Bzdek said.

What do the academics think?

Dr. Christina Foust told the Denver Post it is perfectly understandable to find Colorado communicators embroiled in such a debate, and even to find people who “will come to blows over “physician-assisted suicide” or “dying with dignity.”

“When I think of the word ‘suicide,’ I think of the words that sound just like it — homicide, infanticide. It has such a negative connotation,” Foust said. “On the other side, ‘dying with dignity’ connotes the ability to choose one’s own death, which is an affront to somebody who might rest that power in God or a higher power.”

But opponents of Initiative 145 say those clamoring against the word “suicide” are only trying to sanitize an ugly idea.

“This is the rotten underbelly of the assisted suicide movement that they want to be covered up with compassionate-sounding catchphrases purposely designed to persuade people to embrace suicide,” Cassy Fiano wrote on the pro-life blog Live Action News.

However, Barbara Coombs Lee, the president of Compassion & Choices and a board member of the campaign in favor of Initiative 145, said those who push the use the word ‘suicide’ are only trying to stigmatize a personal medical decision.

“People who use medical aid in dying are victims of a terminal illness,” Coombs Lee said.

The Compassion & Choices website includes a glossary page that explains why “assisted suicide is an inaccurate description of the medical practice of aid in dying.”

“A request for medication to shorten a difficult dying process by an adult facing an imminent death is different from a person who is considering suicide and has no such prognosis. According to the American Psychological Association, aid in dying and suicide have ‚profound psychological differences,’” the site states.

But Coombs Lee also admitted to the Denver Post that when her side used the phrase “dying with dignity” to get a similar measure approved in Oregon, “we knew the term was biased in our favor — it was our term.”