Particularly since the 1998 implementation of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act , the phrase “death with dignity” is commonly used in conjunction with physician assisted suicide. In his riveting account, labeled “An Act of Love” by The Guardian, Michael Graham describes bringing his wife to Dignitas, a Swiss non-profit organization which helps the chronically ill commit suicide. Dignitas’ motto is “Live with dignity, die with dignity.”
However, I propose a very different understanding of dignity than that of Dignitas. Dignity is that inherent quality possessed by any individual within the human species; it does not just come and go. One cannot lose it on the deathbed. Dignity presides where any human being exists, whether those around choose to acknowledge it or not. As such, dignity demands us to “to reflect and embrace the worthiness of embodied human life”, as Leon Kass states in Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity. In other words, the protection of human dignity requires the protection and appreciation of human life.
So if one’s dignity cannot be lost as long as he or she is living (chronically ill or not), then what is Dignitas referring to when they claim a “death with dignity”? Perhaps those who worry they will not “die with dignity” really fear their growing dependence, vulnerability, and loss of control as they enter their final days. Perhaps they feel ashamed at their weakness, or they worry they will be a burden to family and friends. Michael Graham writes of his wife:
“‘Love to see visitors,’ she wrote in a diary, ‘but feel like weeping with exhaustion once gone.’ The doctors promised her bladder wouldn’t be affected, but that month she choked on a sweet and ‘with coughing, wet myself thoroughly. Devastating ’… [S]he didn’t want to kill herself. She felt she had to, but she didn’t want to.”
“Let me die with dignity” sounds more and more like, “Let me die with my pride intact.” Pride in this context is not necessarily a negative thing, and a patient’s self-esteem and self-worth should be fiercely protected during this time. Nevertheless, pride is not dignity, and they ought not be equated. Unlike dignity, pride is a transient view of oneself. Dignity is always worth protecting; pride is not. There are some lines that cannot, or at least ought not, be crossed in order to preserve a patient’s pride; one such line would be the deliberate termination of a human life. Human dignity, on the other hand, should be defended at all costs.