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What does dignity really mean?

What does dignity really mean?

Elizabeth Oldfield argues that we need a deeper concept of ‘dignity’ than is currently being used in the assisted dying debate.

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Words matter. We use language to shape our sense of ourselves and our understanding of others. When an important word or concept starts being used in a new way, we should pay attention.

Take dignity. Dignity means, or has meant, being worthy of honour or respect. A dignified person is someone of value in the eyes of others. It’s a relational concept. Many people aspire to dignity, both throughout and as they approach the end of their lives.

However, perhaps the most common public uses of the word dignity at the moment means something slightly different.

This month, Noel Conway, a man with motor neurone disease who wants a medically assisted death, was granted the right to take his case to appeal. He is being supported in his fight by Dignity in Dying, the campaign group for legalising assisted suicide. They said about the case that Noel “should have the option of an assisted death and be able to die with dignity”.  

Noel’s condition – his fear and frustration– should of course prompt compassion in us all, as have previous cases such as that of Tony Nicklinson and Debbie Purdy, who also fought to have a medically assisted death. At the same time, conflating dignity with assisted dying like this can send a really dangerous message.

Dignity is currently being used in the assisted dying debate to mean simply the freedom to choose how and when to end your life with the help of doctors rather than its traditional use of recognising and conferring value on a person.

Of course, most words have a broad range of meanings. Dignity has also sometimes carried the sense of self–respect or composure. Many of us fear the loss of independence which old age and illness bring. We fear that when we need other people’s help to move around, wash ourselves, feed ourselves we will lose our dignity. That we will lose control of our bladder or bowels and feel humiliated. Of course we do.

That fear is a reason for defending the fuller, deeper concept of dignity. Dignity cannot and should not rest wholly or mainly in our ability to make self–optimising choices, or be totally ‘together’, impervious to pain or suffering. If we continue to let the concept of dignity be highjacked to mean choice and independence we will add to the sufferings of those at the end of life.

A non–assisted death is not undignified. No one should feel ashamed of becoming incontinent. Needing the love and care and help of others should be seen as a normal part of the human lifecycle, part of our embodied adventure, not a cause for mental distress. Dignity can be protected and enhanced through tailored, thoughtful, personal palliative care, reassurance, and a sense of humour. Many of our hospices provide dignified deaths day in, day out, helping people feel loved and valued no matter their physical or mental limitations.

Individual cases like Noel Conway’s and those others which have hit the headlines tug at our heartstrings, and of course, they should. But in the heat of emotion we need to be even more careful with our language. There is a very real risk that if a dignified death becomes further equated with assisted suicide then those without access to that, or who would not choose it, will feel demeaned and demoralised. Their dependence and suffering should have no impact on their dignity, their worth and value, but they are implicitly being told it does.

This week we are launching a new Theos report entitled Dignity at the End of Life. It explores the concept of dignity in more depth, in both theory and practice. We spoke to professionals involved in end of life care about what helps and hinders a sense of dignity. We also offer constructive ways in which dignity can be protected and enhanced for those facing death.

Assisted dying campaigners are understandably seeking to reduce suffering at the end of life. Their motives are laudable. Of course campaigns like these are always pragmatic, using emotive language to stir up support.  But in co–opting the language of dignity, they are doing more harm than good.

Elizabeth Oldfield is Director of Theos.

Dignity at the End of Life: What’s Beneath the Assisted Dying Debate? (2018) by Andrew Grey.

 Image by photgraphee.eu from shutterstock.com available under licence

Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth is Theos’ Director. She appears regularly in the media, including BBC One, Sky News, and the World Service, writing in The Financial Times and delivering Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Posted 7 February 2018

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