by Calum Mackellar, The Scotsman, 5 February 2015
Dr MacKellar is the director of research at the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics. In this article (published last year before the Scottish parliament decisively defeated a euthanasia bill) he discusses “one of the most contested themes being used by both sides of the debate; namely the concept of human dignity.”
On the one side, advocates of assisted suicide suggest that individuals should be able to determine their own dignity and quality of life, unrestricted by the moral, religious or cultural beliefs of others. For them, dignity reflects the manner in which individuals may consider themselves according to their subjective and personal values, desires and relationships, reflecting what is believed to be certain standards of decency. Because of this, it is a dignity which is non-inherent in that it can be gained or lost and can vary quite considerably between individuals.
From this perspective, the right to die with dignity reflects a perceived right of persons to be able to die when they believe that their lives have become unworthy of life. As such, it is consistent with the claim that individuals should be able to make their own decisions as an expression of personal freedom and autonomy.
Compassion, in this context, would mean acknowledging that someone may be in great distress because they cannot put an end to their lives which, they believe, have become meaningless.
Those supporting assisted suicide, therefore, do so on the very strong themes of non-inherent dignity, compassion and autonomy.
But another definition of dignity exists – one that has far more implications and goes to the very fabric of civilised society. It is the dignity which sustains the permanent, immeasurable, inviolable and equal value and worth of all members of a society. As such, it is an inherent dignity that can never be lost (in contrast to non-inherent dignity) and is found in every person to an equal extent. This is in accordance with the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights which affirms in its preamble “the inherent dignity and… the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” as “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.
From this perspective, legalising assisted suicide would mean that the whole of society, as well as the Scottish Parliament, would accept that some individuals can have, for the first time in history, lives which no longer have any inherent worth and meaning. It would give the message that the very value and significance of a human life is merely based on subjective choices and decisions and whether a life meets certain quality standards.
This would also mean that the intrinsic and universal equality and value between all human beings would no longer exist – a position which would eventually undermine the very basis of civilised society and the foundation on which the Scottish Parliament exists.
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