Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Language Ideology in Discourses on Physician Assisted Dying: Untangling Threads of Discord in the Case of Brittany Maynard

Language Ideology in Discourses on Physician Assisted Dying: Untangling Threads of Discord in the Case of Brittany Maynard

Caitlin M. Cassady

Language matters in an ethical debate about death. Physician assisted dying for the terminally ill is legal in only a handful of places in the United States, however locales continue to actively consider the issue through legislation or legal action. The year 2015 saw physician-assisted death legalized by a Supreme Court decision in Canada, and by legislative action in the State of California. Prior to this legislation, in 2014, 29 year-old California native and Oregon transplant Brittany Maynard became an outspoken activist in the Death-with-Dignity movement at a national level. During the course of her advocacy for terminal patients’ rights to hasten their deaths, she identified use of the word “suicide” as “inflammatory”. Although not the first of their kind, Maynard’s contestations of the word suicide may be the most public and widely debated to date in the United States. This paper uses discourse analysis to examine publicly available internet texts focusing on terminological contestations and varying perspectives of euphemistic language forming ideology in an ethical debate. I argue that candid declarations of ‘correct’ or ‘best’ terminology within these texts can act as a window through which what really matters, what is at stake for those taking part in the debate, can come into focus. Linguistic and medical anthropology offer useful lenses for examining cultural beliefs about terminal illness and meaning in language disagreements surrounding physician assisted dying. Research exploring common language and associated meanings about morally ambiguous death choices in the United States is valuable not only to anthropologies of death and suicide, but also potentially to professions working with the terminally ill. Findings may have important implications both for future research on American English language about death, as well as how medical and legal professionals discuss physician assisted dying, suicide, or other contested terms with those they service.

April 11, 2016 - Posted by | abstract


  1. This is an interesting topic and I followed Maynard’s advocacy. This is a long standing debate brought to light when Jack Kervorkian took up the cause long ago. It would be interesting to understand the viewpoints of how the use of “suicide” is viewed. Can you provide how linguistic and medical anthropology offer useful lenses for examining cultural beliefs about terminal illness ? Would it be just about the use of language or would values and beliefs about terminal illness and healthcare be a significant factor?

    Comment by D Castagna | April 19, 2016 | Reply

    • Hi Daniel, I think that values and beliefs about terminal illness and healthcare are key to understanding what influences lexical selections in this ethical debate. In my paper I expand a bit on medical anthropologist Sharon Kaufman’s concept of “ethicality” as a potential influence. Kaufman’s (2011) ethicality posits a rationale of decision-making based on political and economic models of healthcare that infuse Americans’ understandings of what is moral and right for ourselves and our loved ones. For instance, the fee-for-service model can work to perpetuate a ‘more is better’ or ‘at any cost’ mentality when approaching the decision of what and when to use interventions. This combines with unquestioned axioms of technology’s beneficence works towards what Kaufman calls “a reflexive longevity” (2011:209), that more time alive is always what’s best. Using this theoretical lens, eschewing more or longer treatment to give a few more months or weeks– shortening one’s life to preserve quality of death– can easily be termed “suicide”. Thanks for the feedback and opportunity to elaborate.

      Comment by C.M. Cassady | April 21, 2016 | Reply

  2. I remember talking about this subject of assisted dying during my undergraduate studies as we explored the phrase “a good death”. Within your abstract, it is mentioned the looking into of specific terminology in talking about this topic. I’m curious and feel this fits within the boundaries of your topic, but was this phrase explored and or did it come up within your medical anthropology material? I would be interested to see what medical anthropologists are saying today about their findings surrounding the above phrase.

    Comment by Crystal Mitchell | April 25, 2016 | Reply

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