Dignity is popular these days. When people champion human rights, human dignity is usually not too far behind, and with good reason: our rights are based on it. Conversely, things without dignity do not have rights. For example, when we get sick, we have no qualms about killing the bacteria or viruses that cause our diseases because they do not possess the same dignity that we do. As a result, we simply kill them when they get in our way.
Somewhat paradoxically, another right that people usually claim is grounded in our dignity is the right to kill ourselves if we no longer want to live. Proponents of physician-assisted suicide often contend that people have a right to do this because we should be able to die with dignity. They argue that we should not have to be reduced to infant-like states in which we can no longer control our bodily functions, move on our own, or think rationally. Instead, they say, we should be able to end our lives while we can still do all those things. Simply put, they think that we have a right to die while we still have our dignity.
On the surface, this seems to make sense. The sick and elderly are often embarrassed about the things they can no longer do for themselves, and that embarrassment is totally understandable. Nobody wants to rely on others for basic things like bathing and eating. We take pride in our independence and our ability to care for ourselves, so when we lose those things, it is only natural to feel embarrassed. People debilitated by disease or old age may even feel useless because they can no longer contribute to society in the ways they used to. Instead, they may want to end their lives while they are still independent, while they can still take care of themselves, and while they can still contribute to society. In other words, they may want to die before they lose their sense of dignity.
However, if we look beneath the surface, we can see that this understanding of dignity is actually quite shallow. In fact, it is nothing more than a hollow caricature. True human dignity means that we are valuable in ourselves, not simply because of the good qualities we have. It means that our very existence is good no matter what shape we may be in, and that we always deserve to be loved, even when we can no longer take care of ourselves or contribute to society in a practical way.
This dignity is based simply on the fact that we are human, so we can never lose it no matter what we do or what condition we find ourselves in. The elderly and the sick are still human, so no matter how bad things get, they always retain their basic human dignity. It is always good that they exist, and they always deserve to be loved, no matter what. That is real dignity, and physician-assisted suicide can never help us to preserve it.
On the contrary, killing ourselves is a great offense against our dignity. If we can end our lives when we lose certain abilities, then we are not valuable in ourselves. Rather, we are valuable only to the extent that we have certain qualities, and once we lose those qualities, we no longer matter. If physician-assisted suicide is permissible, then once we lose our value, we no longer deserve to be truly loved.
I can scarcely imagine a more frightening vision of society, but that is where the logic behind “dying with dignity” inescapably leads. It turns people into mere things to be used and then thrown out once their usefulness is gone. It makes us no more valuable or dignified than the tools and instruments we use to accomplish our own personal goals.
Conversely, dying with real dignity means that people die naturally when their time comes. It means that we recognize their value and worth no matter how undignified they may seem or feel and that we see in them a dignity that sickness and old age cannot take away, one that they can never lose no matter what happens to them. To truly help people die with dignity, we have to love them till the end, not make that end come about sooner than it has to. We have to treat them with the same respect we give to people in good health and make sure they know that they matter just as much as anyone else. That is dying with real dignity, and anything less is a sham.