The assisted-suicide debate begins with a contest over language, a war over a word. That word is ‘dignity.’ The Swiss assisted suicide clinic, where every eight days one Briton travels to die, is called Dignitas. In 2006, the Voluntary Euthanasia Society changed its name to Dignity in Dying. And Oregon’s 1998 liberalising law – the model for the legislation Baroness Meacher is proposing in this country – was called the Death with Dignity Act.
The effect of co-opting the word ‘dignity’ is to imply if you have a terminal illness and want to maintain dignity at the end of your life you will choose assisted suicide. The disastrous implication of this is illness can be undignified.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to live with Stage Four Cancer or to suffer the final phases of a disease as cruel as motor neurone disease. I can’t imagine the effect such an experience has on your psyche, on your understanding of yourself. But to say that such conditions can strip you of your dignity cannot be right.
Certainly, it is possible to lose your dignity. I can behave in ways that are beneath me. I can be obsequious, for example, or cravenly conform. But as the late German philosopher Robert Spaemann puts it, ‘only you can forfeit your own dignity.’ External circumstances, even the most awful, cannot detract from your dignity. Suffering does not rob a human being of his or her honour or worth. It is the rapist, not their victim – the person who inflicts injury, not the person who suffers it – who has lost their dignity. But people who have terminal illnesses have done nothing to forfeit their own dignity and it is sinister to suggest otherwise.