Definitions Are Not Neutral

Quote of the Day for Friday, November 26, 2010:

Rita L. Marker and Wesley J. Smith on euthanasia & euphemism, from a paper first appearing in the Duquesne Law Review Vol. 35, No. 1 (Fall 1996) pp. 81-107 under the title “The Art of Verbal Engineering, ” published on-line by the International Anti-Euthanasia Task Force:

Today when mercy killing is discussed, it is couched in euphemisms — words of gentleness or the language of rights. Titles of euthanasia advocacy groups contain words like “compassion,” “choice,” and “dignity.” Even the Euthanasia Society of American has undergone name changes to present a more positive image. (In 1976 the Euthanasia Society of America changed its name to the Society for the Right to Die and, in 1991, it became known as Choice in Dying.)

No longer does anyone but its strongest opponent refer to mercy killing. The word “euthanasia” is generally avoided in proposals to legalize it. Old words are replaced or given different, vague meanings.

Like a constantly changing kaleidoscope, meanings shift ever so slightly, forming new patterns of thinking. Slowly, quietly — but inexorably — the previously appalling is transformed into the presently appealing.

The manner in which words are defined is key to achieving this transformation.

This is something that Dutch euthanasia practitioner Dr. M. A. M. Wachter, the ethicist/director for the Institute of Health in the Netherlands, knows well. Speaking at a 1990 international euthanasia gathering, he stated, “The definition builds the road for euthanasia.” He acknowledged that “euthanasia is the intentional ending of the life of another….It is always a question of terminating human life,” then went on to urge that careful attention be paid to definitions.

“Definitions are not neutral,” he said. “They are not just the innocent tools that allow us to describe reality. Rather, they shape our perceptions of reality. They select. They emphasize. They embody a bias. Therefore definitions constantly need redefinition.”

Definitions are indeed not neutral. But they constantly require re-definition, not redefinition…