Reporting on assisted dying? Avoid common pitfalls
Voluntary assisted dying is a complex issue. As in all important public policy debates, accuracy and facts matter. This overview of voluntary assisted dying in Australia helps you avoid common pitfalls in reporting on this nuanced issue.
On this page
- Language makes a difference – the preferred and most accurate term in Australia is voluntary assisted dying
- Choose images carefully – consider what messages are conveyed
- Opponents often use inflammatory and misleading language – repeating their words uncritically can cause harm
- Opinions are not facts – arguments based on value judgements alone have less weight than tested evidence
- Balance does not mean 50/50 – Opposing views are fine, but the weight of evidence and experience shows assisted dying is safe, compassionate and welcomed by the vast majority of Australians. To suggest otherwise without evidence is not balance, it is bias.
Words have power. Terms such as 'assisted suicide', 'physician assisted suicide' and 'medically assisted suicide' have negative connotations. Opponents exploit these terms to create fear, uncertainty and doubt. Voluntary assisted dying is the most accurate and sensitive way to describe the process as it occurs in Australia:
- VOLUNTARY: the decision to seek life ending medication must be voluntarily made without pressure or coercion.
- ASSISTED: by medical practitioners. If a person is considered eligible and is determined to proceed, they either self-administer a substance prescribed by a doctor or have an experienced doctor or nurse administer the substance for them.
- DYING: to be eligible the person must be terminally ill, suffering and at the very end of their life.
Be aware that the term 'euthanasia' refers only to when a doctor administers a life-ending substance to a dying person. It’s not accurate when describing Australian laws which also give people the option to self-administer medication. To date, the majority of assisted deaths in Australia have been self-administered.
If you need to use the term 'euthanasia', stipulate that it is 'voluntary euthanasia'.
Assisted dying is not suicide. This is not a case of ‘political correctness’ or a failure to ‘tell it as it is’. To claim equivalence can be harmful and it disrespects the many terminally ill people who desperately want to live but who have had that option taken away by their illness.
The Parliamentary Inquiry Committee in Western Australia understood the distinction:
It is important not to conflate suicide with assisted dying. It is possible to distinguish temporary suicidal ideation from an enduring, considered and rational decision to end one’s life in the face of unbearable suffering.
Peak suicide prevention body Lifeline similarly warns of the dangers of linking the two:
Words can cause harm. Any linkage between euthanasia and suicide has the potential to cause harm. We recommend that any public debate surrounding euthanasia refrains from making the link to suicide as this can provoke suicidal ideation.
Finding images and overlay to illustrate voluntary assisted dying is difficult. But please refrain from using images that show a hypodermic needle or an injection. These can appear threatening and don’t reflect what usually happens in Australia. In the majority of VAD cases, the person willingly takes the life-ending medication in the form of a drink, at a time of their choosing and surrounded by loved ones.
Also, consider what other messages your choice of image conveys – avoid photos that imply frailty, vulnerability and a lack of agency (think ‘old lady hands’). People who choose an assisted death are of all ages and backgrounds, are determined, empowered and 100% know their own minds.
Everyone is entitled to an opinion. But opinions – especially those based on value judgements – are not as reliable as evidence. Evidence that is peer reviewed and tested in courts, parliamentary inquiries and expert panels is the most reliable.
Avoid hypotheticals and what-ifs. They may sound plausible but they are not real scenarios and are not equivalent to actual experience.
Apply the same rigour to hearsay and anecdote. Isolated anecdotes are the least reliable form of evidence. While they can be illustrative, they should always be critically assessed and independently verified. The exceptions are multiple, similar and independent experiences over a period of time that suggest a pattern or systemic phenomenon. These carry more weight.
Frequently Asked Questions
Glossary of terms
Get your head around the language and terminology of end-of-life choice