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Basic Bioethics: A glossary on ‘taking life’

In this series we’ve been covering three broad areas of bioethics categorized as “making life” (beginning of life issues, such as reproductive technologies), “taking life” (end of life issues, such as abortion and euthanasia), and “faking life” (the melding of human biology with machines or other species).

Each category comes with a dizzying array of terms, some that are technical and some that are common but whose meanings differ from normal usage. Since understanding the ethical issues requires understanding how the terms are used, we need to develop a glossary of terms for each area.

The following are common terms related to “taking life.” Whenever the meanings of terms are generally disputed, I’ve relied on the common understanding used by the majority of evangelical Christian bioethicists:

Abortifacient — A chemical or drug that causes embryonic death by either killing the child directly or by preventing implantation in the uterine lining. (See also ‘chemical abortion’)

Abortion — The deliberate termination of a human pregnancy that results in the death of a child either in the embryonic or fetal stages of development.

Brain death – The irreversible loss of all functions of the brain, which usually determines that a person is dead both legally (i.e., for the purposes of the law) and clinically (i.e., for the purposes of medicine).

Chemical abortion — A method of abortion in which chemicals (i.e., an abortifacient) is used to terminate the life of a child in the womb. Also known as a “medical abortion.”

Dying or dying process — An impaired condition that eventually leads to death. May be either reversible (i.e., health can potentially be restored through medical intervention) or irreversible (i.e., no medical intervention can change the process). A person is considered “terminal” when they have entered an irreversible dying process.

Embryocide — The intentional killing of a human at the embryo stage of development (i.e., from fertilization to 8 weeks).

Emergency contraceptive — A method of contraception that is taken after sexual intercourse with the intention of preventing pregnancy. Although the purpose of the contraceptive is to prevent ovulation, it can prevent an embryo from attaching to the uterine lining, thus causing an abortion. Sometimes also known as the “morning after pill.”

Euthanasia — The intentional taking of a human life for the purpose of relieving pain or suffering. Euthanasia may be either voluntary (i.e., at the request of and with the consent of the individual who will die) or involuntary (i.e., request and/or consent was not given), and either passive (i.e., removing medical intervention that results in the person entering the dying process) or active (i.e., causing death through direct action or intervention, such as providing a lethal dose of medication).

Fetuscide — The intentional killing of a human at the fetal stage of development (i.e., from 8 weeks until birth).

Infanticide — The intentional killing of a human being at the infant stage of development (i.e., from birth to 1 year).

Mortality — The number of deaths in a given population during a given period of time or from a particular cause.

Partial birth abortion — A method of abortion, also know as “dilation and extraction” or “intact D&E”, in which the child in the fetal state is partially extracted from the birth canal before being killed. The “dilation” refers to the dilating of the woman's cervix, which allows the child’s feet to be pulled from the birth canal. With the head remaining inside, a sharp instrument is used to puncture the brain. The skull is then crushed to make is possible to “extract” the child’s body in a relatively intact state from the birth canal.

Physician-Assisted Suicide — A type of voluntary passive euthanasia in which a doctor provides information about how to commit suicide or proscribes means that allow the patient to terminate their own life.

Right-to-Die — The concept and political movement that claims individuals have the right to terminate their own lives either through suicide or euthanasia.

Selective abortion — A type of abortion that is usually performed because the child in the womb has unwanted characteristics, such as the child has a birth defect, is of the wrong sex (e.g., a girl when a boy was desired), or is of the wrong number (e.g., the killing of one or more children when the woman is carrying twins, triplets, etc.).

Suicide – The intentional taking of one’s own life.

Surgical abortion — A method of abortion in which the child in utero is dismembered and his or her body parts are removed by suction (aspiration) through a thin tube inserted into the uterus. This method is also known as an aspiration abortion or suction abortion.

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