There is much talk nowadays about assisted dying and people with terminal illnesses taking control of their own death process, with some people choosing to end their lives at their own time and place and volition. For many folk, the thought of dying in protracted pain, with perhaps extensive medical interventions in the form of tablets, drips and needles, is intolerable. Allied to this is the frightening loss of function: the ability to walk and talk, the ability to dress and undress oneself – in other words, the restrictions on one’s personal freedom and quality of life. The argument goes that it is not length of life that really matters but the quality of that life.
I do get these points and I have to say that I speak from a reasonably healthy life stance, and can only honestly wonder what my attitude would be if I became terminally ill. But one aspect of this whole debate that really rankles with me is the repeated use of the word ‘dignity’. We hear of the importance of ‘dying with dignity’, and dignity is almost a watchword or slogan for those who promote assisted dying and euthanasia.
I want to ask: what is dignity? Is this a case of using a word without any real attempt to understand its true meaning?
Let me use a case in point, a case that is sadly all too well known to those of us who live today. During World War II the obscene series of events known as the Holocaust saw millions of innocent people killed for no other reason than their religious heritage and ethnicity. We are told that thousands upon thousands of mainly Jewish people were stripped naked and herded into the gas chambers where they died in extreme terror and despair.
It might be said that their terrible end was the epitome of indignity: crowded, naked, terrified and dying in suffocating agony. Terrible as that surely was, I would contend that – when it comes to dignity – the poor victims had an inner dignity which nothing could take from them. They had no option, no help, no hope of rescue, and in that awful situation they were anything but undignified. The absence of dignity lay with the men and women who forced them into the gas chambers.
What I really mean here is that dignity is an inner quality, which, when one possesses it, cannot be taken away unless the person surrenders it themselves. Corrie ten Boom in her memoir of the Nazi persecution of the Dutch Jews relates how her elderly father kept his dignity in spite of the repeated humiliations done to him, even to the point of death.
To come back to the current issues with terminal illness – and even old age infirmity which for some people is also a case for choosing one’s death process – let me put it in stark terms. If a person needs someone else to take them to the toilet, to help them use the toilet and then to clean and dress them again – is that really taking their dignity away? Really?
While no one would choose to be in such a situation, if and when it becomes a reality, I would suggest that whatever else happens, the individual hasn’t lost any dignity. The likelihood is that they didn’t choose to be in that situation and there is little they can do to change it. They have done nothing wrong and should have no fundamental reason to be embarrassed. It of course greatly helps if the person assisting is respectful and kind, but if not then that is a deficiency in the carer.
A quick check of the dictionary definition of dignity: “the quality or state of being worthy of esteem or respect”. And again: “inherent nobility and worth”. For a Christian, each person’s worth is inherent because we are children of God. No infirmity or disability can ever take that away from us. Cruel folk may try to demean us but, hurtful though that would be, it does not destroy our inner worth – even if we ourselves feel worthless.
We all have dignity as the daughters and sons of God, and we all need to respect that dignity in everyone no matter their life situation. If we don’t, the problem is with us, not them.
Whatever about the pros and cons of choosing the time and method of one’s death, let’s not pretend that being cared for in the final stages of life, or even throughout a disabled life, it follows that the individual lacks dignity. Or is “dying with dignity” actually a slogan used to try and hide a deeper human truth?
What do you think?