When a pair of Melbourne ‘ethicists’ proposed in 2012 that “after-birth abortions” should be legalized, I was reminded of my introduction to journalism.

I was a 17-year-old cadet reporter for Brisbane’s Courier-Mail and sent to interview a man with terminal cancer who was fighting for the right to import drugs that would end his life.

Having been taught that the introduction to a news article needed to be sharp and to the point I wrote: “John Stone, 65, wants to die.”

As an introduction, it was perfect. I’d summarized the story in six words and dared the reader to look away.

But when my article appeared in print the following day the first sentence had been re-written and fairly dawdled along: “John Stone, 65, sees himself as a candidate for euthanasia.”

(The clunky sentence was so long I feared Stone, who was looking forward to the article, might have been dead before he finished reading it)

I was confused. How was “sees himself as a candidate for euthanasia” clearer or more concise than “wants to die”?

People who run for public office see themselves as candidates. People who apply for a job see themselves as candidates. People who import lethal drugs to swallow want to die. The man had told me so himself.

I tried to imagine someone, writhing in pain, pleading with a doctor: “Enough! Please! Let me cease to exist by means of becoming a candidate for euthanasia … or, possibly, the Palmer United Party at the next Federal Election.”

In both cases it would be far more natural and to the point to say: “I just want to die!”

But a sub-editor patiently explained that, whilst less punchy, his rewrite was a great deal more sensitive. “You can’t say that he wants to die!” I was told.

“Well if he doesn’t want to die, he shouldn’t take the drugs!” I countered.

I returned to my desk wondering whether we should really worry about sensitivities when discussing people killing themselves. Er, I mean, when discussing quality of life and the legalities of euthanizing those who may or may not see themselves as candidates for such a, um, medical procedure.

That was 23 year ago. Today nothing is more common than using ‘sensitive’ terms to disguise what we really mean. In fact, we are now so sensitive that we no longer know what we really mean.

We breezily discuss issues from which we would once have recoiled because manipulation of language disguises what it is we are really discussing.

Killing a baby has become terminating a fetus. And of course we never used to talk about a fetus; it used to be a baby. To be sure, sometimes it still is. When a pregnant woman is murdered the murderer is said to have killed both the woman and her unborn baby. But when a woman decides she does not want her unborn, it is neither a baby and nor is it killed. Rather, she chooses an abortion or, alternatively, the pregnancy is terminated.

Using a long toothed clamp to reach into the uterus and tear out a fetus a bit at a time before suctioning out anything that remains is casually referred to as a “late term abortion”. 

To be more sensitive to women making difficult choices (an admirable goal) we’ve become insensitive to what those choices really mean.

And now killing a two-week-old baby because it is an inconvenience, as proposed in an article for the British Medical Journal article, has become an “after-birth abortion”.

This obfuscation is galling, especially when used by so-called ethicists. If you wish to propose killing babies, then be honest and propose killing babies. To propose such, but refer to it as an “after-birth abortion” is not sensitive. It’s willfully ambiguous at best and downright dishonest at worst.

And so 23 years ago I was not allowed to write that John Stone wanted to die. That, I was told, would have been insensitive to John Stone.

Maybe it is the same logic that led newspapers to describe the pair from Monash University as “ethicists”. To call them evil would, after all, have been insensitive.