Bioethics Blogs

Dignity, Politics, and Medical Assistance in Dying

Harry Critchley considers the meaning and role of dignity within debates on medical assistance in dying.


Though the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled in Carter v Canada that the prohibition on assisted suicide violates section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, medically assisted death continues to be a divisive issue for many Canadians. One clear indication of this are the serious challenges to the federal government’s proposed legislation on medical assistance in dying (Bill C-14).

In Canada and across the globe, debates on medical assistance in dying are frequently couched in language that refers to “the dignity of the human person.” Strangely enough, however, appeals to dignity are made in support of arguments that are completely at odds with one another. Dignity is invoked in support of the right to exercise control over one’s way of life and death, and so to “die with dignity.” At the same time, dignity is associated with the view that life has a sacred value, and so to attempt to shorten it artificially is an indignity of the highest order.

These competing understandings have led some to dismiss dignity outright. Bioethicist Ruth Macklin, for example, has argued that “appeals to dignity are either vague restatements of other, more precise, notions or mere slogans.” According to Macklin, in each case dignity means nothing more than respect for autonomy (that is, respect for the ability of persons to freely determine themselves). Since respect for autonomy is already an important societal principle, dignity could be eliminated “without any loss of content.”

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.