What’s in a name?

Interacting with students often reminds me of the importance of some very basic things.  Recently I was reminded of the importance of defining the terms we use in bioethics.  In reading reviews of case studies by some of my online students I saw how their unquestioning acceptance of definitions influences how they think.

The terms involved were “abortion” and “passive euthanasia” and the definitions were from a textbook by Lewis Vaughn that we use in the course.  Vaughn’s text, which I reviewed in the summer 2011 edition of Ethics & Medicine, is generally good at representing a wide spectrum of views on current issues in bioethics, but sometimes some less objective things slip in.

Abortion was defined as “the intentional termination of a pregnancy through drugs or surgery”, which sounds pretty straightforward.  From the way a student was using the definition in a case review I realized that the definition would include and equate abortion with such things as the induction of labor for the delivery of a healthy term infant or a C-section to save the life of an infant in distress.  The fact that an abortion is a termination of pregnancy that includes the intentional ending of the life of the fetus was left out.  That part of the definition makes a big difference.

Passive euthanasia was defined as “allowing someone to die by not doing something that would prolong life.”  That is how James Rachels defined passive euthanasia in his classic defense of active euthanasia that was based on there being no moral distinction between active and passive euthanasia.  What that definition leaves out is the idea that any euthanasia involves the intent to end another person’s life.  This definition of passive euthanasia includes all the times we allow a person to die by choosing not to initiate or continue any possible life-prolonging treatment, but there is a significant difference between allowing a person to die of his or her disease when treatment has become more of a burden than a benefit and doing something with the intent of causing the person to die.  Intending another person’s death is the key to what is wrong with euthanasia and leaving that out of the definition makes a big difference.

What’s in a name?  The difference between right and wrong.

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John Kilner
John Kilner
9 years ago

Excellent observation regarding the importance of carefully–and accurately–defining terms in bioethics. Definitions need to help clarify and facilitate debate, not incline people toward a particular ethical position. The search continues for a helpful textbook that presents and discusses the secular bioethics literature without being biased by it. As you say, Vaughn is good in many respects, though there are the flaws you note as well. This year we’re trying out another such text instead, in the bioethics program here: David DeGrazia, Thomas A. Mappes, and Jeffrey Brand‐Ballard, Biomedical Ethics, 7th edition (McGraw Hill, 2011.) It has the merit of covering more ground than Vaughn in the biotech and human enhancement arena. How well it will hold up, as many scrutinize it for definitional clarity/accuracy and other indicators of objectivity, remains to be seen.

Erik Clary
8 years ago

Excellent post, Steve.

On defining “abortion,” Vaughn’s definition excludes the termination of human embryonic life that has yet to be transferred to the womb.

I believe it best to avoid the term “euthanasia” in describing the situation where we choose not to artificially extend the dying process in the case of terminal illness. First, in common usage, the term generally carries the notion of killing a fellow human being. Second, even as one may accept death with grace and courage in the context of the hope that is ours in Christ, the label of “good death” (“eu” – good; “thanatos” – death) hardly seems appropriate. It is, I believe, an oxymoron as death is truly a miserable outworking of humankind in rebellion against a perfectly good Creator.