Rethinking ‘death with dignity’

There are 3 days until Parliament will debate Rob Marris’s Assisted Dying Bill. The strongest support for the bill has come from the group Dignity in Dying, which has led the campaign to legalise physician-assisted suicide in the United Kingdom.

Dignity in Dying, like other advocacy groups for physician-assisted suicide, claim that dying with dignity means being able to choose how, when, and where we die. Many people face painful physical or mental decline at the end of life, and proponents of assisted dying argue that it’s only fair and compassionate to help those people avoid that decline by committing suicide with the help of a doctor if they wish. The premise of their argument is strong – people can experience overwhelming pain and fear in the face of death, and they deserve all of the care and support that they need. But it doesn’t follow from this that assisted suicide is a good idea, or that it will protect human dignity. There’s more than enough evidence to show that the actual effects of assisted dying bills are often disastrous. Assisted suicide laws don’t preserve human dignity – they attack it.

What does it mean to say we have dignity? If human beings have dignity, it is because we have value – nothing worthless can be dignified. Assisted suicide bills, however, enshrine in the law that some lives are less valuable than others. Laws exist to protect us. So laws which allow for the killing of the terminally ill, the disabled, or the unborn establish that not all lives are valuable enough to be worthy of protection. Many supporters of assisted suicide counter that if a person wishes to die, their will should take precedence over external evaluations. But it’s a pretty thin concept of value – and would make for a very poor law – to say that a person’s worth is only as great as their desire to live. Those who might be most tempted to take advantage of assisted dying laws – the weak, the suffering, and the lonely – are exactly the people whose dignity is in need of affirmation. Assisted suicide laws pull the rug out from under them.

Dignity doesn’t come from choosing how we die. It’s not nobler to swallow poison than to die of cancer. Dignity comes from having value, which human beings do. Laws that deny that value are an assault on dignity. The Marris Bill doesn’t offer dignity in death, it offers a degradation of life. It is in no-one’s best interest to move it forward.