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Friday, October 1, 2010

What is human dignity?

The Quebec National Assembly hearings on Dying with Dignity have, of course, been met with the opposition of many people and groups, the latest one being the Ordre des infirmières et infirmiers du Québec (the nurses association). (See the Montreal Gazette for 28 September 2010.) The argument, as usual, pertains to palliative care.

In a news release, before its testimony, order president Gyslaine Desrosiers said the risks of legalizing medical means to ending life are very real.
"It would be premature to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide when there remains so much to do in the area of end-of-life care," Desrosiers said. "Protection of the dignity of people is a daily task.

"Euthanasia and assisted suicide are acts which must remain exceptional."

It is important to note that the idea that "protection of the dignity of people is a daily task" is taken directly out of the Roman Catholic moral play book. It neglects the most important question: What is human dignity? In what does human dignity consist?

The Roman Catholic Church holds that human dignity pertains merely to biological human life. Therefore, in Roman Catholic theology, the embryo has as much dignity as a woman who has lived, faced challenges, made decisions, developed a plan of life, has hopes, fears and aspirations, etc. ... Therefore, even if a woman's life is in danger, the Roman Catholic Church forbids abortion. It excommunicated the medical team and the mother of a 9 year old Brazilian girl who was raped by her step father, and made pregnant with twins, because they had participated in aborting the 9 year old's foetuses. It excommunicated a nun in the United States because she had permitted an abortion (at a Roman Catholic hospital) rather than let a woman die.

When we are talking about human dignity, it is important to bear in mind just what the Roman Catholic Church means by this term. It has nothing to do with individuality, with personal decision or the capacity for personal decision. It is simply a matter of biological human life. It is a brutally inane concept, deeply immoral, with tragically immoral consequences, and should be seen to be so. It should not govern our laws, and no one should be held hostage to it. If Roman Catholics want to vest dignity in the simple fact of biologically life, they are welcome to do it, but it should not be forced on anyone else.

Aside from this Gyslaine Desrosiers' argument is empty. Of course, we should make sure we have the best end-of-life care possible, but we know, too, that there will always be more that we can do. Suggesting that people should not be permitted to choose assistance in dying because our end-of-life care is not perfect is laughable. It never will be perfect, and even if it were, individuals should still have the right to choose.

The further claim made by Gyslaine Desrosiers that "the risks of legalizing medical means to ending life are very real" is simply false. It is one of those run-of-the-mill scare tactics that opponents of assisted dying always use. But there is absolutely no reason to believe it to be true. Certainly, the law must ensure that any law enabling assisted dying cannot be used for the purposes of murder, so there must be clarity about consent and the ability to consent; but is this not already required in cases where patients choose not to undergo treatment, or to have treatment withdrawn? Opponents will use every dirty trick in the book, and this is one of them.

The important questions are: What is human dignity? How can the dignity of persons be best preserved and enhanced? Is refusing to assist a person to die in a way and at a time of their own choosing compatible with respecting that person's dignity?

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