Assisted suicide is incompatible with human dignity

The debate about assisted suicide is heating up in Ireland again with a Private Member’s Bill due to come before the Dail that seeks to permit the procedure under certain circumstances. At the core of this debate is the very dangerous assumption that death by a form of suicide is compatible with human dignity.

Dignity is the intrinsic value of a person that requires respect and reverence.

Suffering, physical or mental, is a terrible but there is profound dignity when someone faces the most difficult circumstances with courage and strength.

Associating this great human value with self-killing is detrimental. The more astute campaigners for assisted suicide will use more acceptable expressions such as “assisted dying” or “end of life options”, as they are well aware of the contradictions of their own perspective.  But behind those euphemisms there is the dark reality that assisted suicide is a form of suicide and endorsing it, even in limited circumstances, sends the wrong message to those who struggle.

Those who are vulnerable deserve more protections, particularly protection from despair or a sense of abandonment. They don’t need a “dignified” exit option, precisely because there is no real dignity in suicide.

Among the strongest opponents of assisted suicide are health care professionals. For instance, the World Medical Association has recently reaffirmed its long-standing policy of opposition to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.

“The WMA reiterates its strong commitment to the principles of medical ethics and that utmost respect has to be maintained for human life. Therefore, the WMA is firmly opposed to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide”, they stated at their 2019 annual conference, “No physician should be forced to participate in euthanasia or assisted suicide, nor should any physician be obliged to make referral decisions to this end.”

Their pledge also refers to dignity twice: “… I will respect the autonomy and dignity of my patient; … I will practise my profession with conscience and dignity …”

Once we agree with the false notion that killing ourselves, with the help of others if needed, is a more dignified death than other alternatives, it becomes harder to restrict it.

It would become more difficult, for instance, to refuse a ‘dignified’ death to a young person who felt clinical depression (say) was making their life ‘unbearable’.

Involuntary euthanasia also becomes harder to resist. If we decide deliberate killing is compatible with ‘dignity’, then the way is paved to authorising the death of people suffering from severe dementia, are seriously ill in other ways, and cannot make a decision for themselves.

There is an almost natural step from “this is a good option” to “this is the good option”.

In vulnerable minds, – because this is precisely what we are discussing here – once assisted suicide becomes socially acceptable it also becomes the expected “choice”.

The experience of the few countries that have introduced assisted suicide – which is still banned almost everywhere – tells us two things: with time those laws become less restrictive and the number of people who kill themselves grows, together with the number of abuses of the legislation.

It is not surprising that soon or later the initial restrictions are lifted because if “dying with dignity” is preferable to alternatives, there is no compelling reason why it should be restricted at all. Also, it is not surprising that what is initially presented as a “choice” becomes a social norm. Legalisation means normalisation.

I am not saying that the proposal to allow a limited form of assisted suicide is bad because it could escalate. I am arguing that it is always wrong and it is impossible to make a distinction between bad and good suicides.

It is wrong in itself and it is much easier to see why when we consider all the necessary and logical consequences of accepting a principle that initially is limited to restricted circumstances.

Let’s be clear, there is no dignity in suicide and those who perpetuate this notion are spreading a very dangerous idea.