“Being Released” and other Euphemisms about Death

Being “released” sounds so ordinary, perhaps even positive. To the citizens portrayed in Lois Lowry’s The Giver (a recently released movie and young adult fiction favorite), being released is an accepted part of community life.

According to the narrator, 12-year old Jonas: “There were only two occasions of release which were not punishment. Release of the elderly, which was a time of celebration for a life well and fully lived; and release of a newchild, which always brought a sense of what-could-we-have done.” Jonas was not quite sure what happened to people when they were “released,” but he gave it little thought, accepting the status quo.

The_Giver_posterAs you may have guessed, there comes a time when Jonas discovers what “released” really means. His father is responsible for choosing which of two baby twins will be released, since twins aren’t allowed in their utopian community: “Usually it’s just a matter of birth weight. We release the smaller of the two,” Jonas’s father explains nonchalantly. Knowing that a baby is being released, Jonas decides to watch his father perform the “ceremony.”

“To his surprise, his father began very carefully to direct the needle into the top of newchild’s forehead, puncturing the place where the fragile skin pulsed.” In a moment that seems to irreversibly impact every young person who reads The Giver, Jonas realizes with horror that his father had just happily killed a baby. 

Yes, “being released” is this manufactured society’s euphemism for killing babies who are not meeting the community’s standard of flourishing, as well as for killing the elderly and anyone else who requests release.

Sound familiar?

One cannot help but notice the similarities between being released and society’s acceptance of abortion and euthanasia today.

Note how vague the language is that is applied to ending a human life. “Being released” sounds pretty harmless, doesn’t it? Similarly, “euthanasia” does not sound nearly as dreadful as “death by injection.” Abortion, as well, has become such a commonplace term that many people do not immediately think “purposefully ending the life of an innocent human being.” Words have power. By using euphemisms, we are able to avoid facing the horrifying reality that these words signify.

Although the babies killed in the Giver have already been born, the method of choosing who is to be released is much like abortion culture today. In the book and movie, children are chosen to die based on whether they make life more inconvenient for adults. Do they cry through the night for longer than anticipated? Perhaps they should be released. What is the point of having identical twins? Better to release one. Does a child need a little extra care and attention? Why not release this one and hope for an easier child next time.

This sort of degradation of human life is heartbreaking to those who read and watch The Giver. And yet, these choices happen all the time, right before our eyes. The vast majority of children with Down ’s syndrome are aborted before they have the chance to smile. Gendercide is an appalling reality, wherein girls are aborted solely because of their sex. And, of course, children are often aborted because “the timing isn’t right.”

As horrible of acts as these killings are, the Giver also points out that many people are not fully aware of what they are doing. Even Jonas’s father, who kills babies with syringes one minute and dotingly takes care of live children the next, does not see what he is doing as murder. He is a product of a culture that has told him that release is normal, even helpful for society. As far as he is concerned, he is just doing his job.

We know from the Catechism that to be culpable for mortal sin, we have to know what we are doing is wrong. Sadly, too often, people are sold the lie that abortion is just the disposal of a lump of tissue and euthanasia is an act of mercy towards those who are suffering. Just think about Abby Johnson, who worked in an abortion clinic because she believed in helping women. When she assisted an abortion and watched the attack on an ultrasound, however, she left her work forever and is now a well-known advocate for life.

When I read The Giver as a child, it impressed upon me the incredible worth of human life. If you’ve watched the new film or read the book, you know that Jonas is a hero precisely because he bravely and selflessly defends life.

As an adult, rereading the book in anticipation of viewing the movie, I’ve come away with a different lesson. I am reminded once again of the importance of education in our culture, of exposing practices like abortion and euthanasia for what they really are. By moving away from euphemisms, and providing information and facts about life, there is hope that more people, like Jonas, will recognize the beauty of life and the horror of “being released.”

cbootsmasCaitlin Bootsma is the editor of Human Life International's Truth and Charity Forum. Mrs. Bootsma received a Licentiate in Catholic Social Communications at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome as well as a Master's of Systematic Theology from Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. She lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband and two sons.
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