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Exploring Assisted Suicide Laws: Rethinking Dignity, Agency, and Interdependence

Exploring Assisted Suicide Laws: Rethinking Dignity, Agency, and Interdependence

Daniel Turner explores the assisted suicide debate, unpacking the notions of dignity, interdependence, and vulnerability. 26/05/2023

From age limits to disability and mental health grounds, the ever–expanding reach of assisted suicide laws in countries such as Canada, Belgium and The Netherlands has been a significant source of conversation in more hesitant countries such as the UK. Such concern seems justified with recent polling from Canada revealing 28% of people feel that laws should be expanded to allow homelessness (and 27% for poverty) as a reason to seek medical assistance in dying. More alarming still, this number jumps to 41% of people aged between 18 and 34. 

For years, the central battleground of this debate has been over the term ‘dignity’. What does it mean for a person to have dignity? And how can one experience a dignified death? These questions have been batted back and forth in parliaments across the Western world, with many coming to the unfortunate conclusion of equating dignity with agency.  

Beyond the problematic disregard for already marginalised groups who often lack complete agency (e.g. children, elderly, disabled people, etc.), and the failure to recognise how limited agency can be in the face of external influences, pressures and social norms, this shallow partnership of dignity and choice also skips over a more fundamental aspect of what human dignity comes down to, namely – interdependence.  

As Baroness Finlay wrote in the foreword to Theos’ 2018 report, Dignity at the End of Life: What’s Beneath the Assisted Dying Debate?, “dignity is not to be found simply in exercising personal control but through meaningful relationships with others. Such relationships recognise the intrinsic worth of every person, the interrelated nature of human behaviours and the fact that no one person is an island. This requires recognition that all domains – psychological, social, emotional, and spiritual – of a person’s life contribute to and are essential components of their experience of a sense of dignity.” 

Through this lens of dignity by relationship, the onus shifts from the individual serving themselves to serving the other. We begin to recognise that the chain holding us all together is only as strong as its weakest link, and we develop the courage and compassion not to settle for the ‘ninety–nine’, but to seek out, help, and place value in the ‘one’ (Matt 18:12).  

The narrow pairing of dignity and agency also forgets one elemental aspect to the human condition: vulnerability. The natural order of life means that we are all born dependent and will (for the most part) all die dependent too. Even in the decades between, when we are physically and mentally responsible for our own lives, we remain fundamentally linked to and formed by the society and subcultures we find ourselves in. 

In the Christian tradition, this belief in humanity’s intrinsic worth and connectedness led to a radical teaching of altruism, with a special emphasis on one’s need to care for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, etc. Why? Because in the words of Christ, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40). 

Contrasting this commitment to the vulnerable with the emerging situation in Canada, what has changed, that over a quarter of people polled would view homelessness or poverty as acceptable reasons to end one’s own life? Again, it seems our turn to radical individualism, and from there its logical manifestations, is to blame.  

Unbeknownst to many in society, there has been a shift in how we perceive human value towards the commodification of the human person. There are those who contribute, and those who are burdens. This callous binary is then amplified for those who are naturally disadvantaged, be it because of age, or physical/mental disabilities. As Paralympian and former Sacred guest Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson put it, “the worry I have for disabled people is that if we live in a society where I’m still fighting to get disabled people into mainstream education, where only half the disabled people who can work actually have a job… people are made to feel worthless.” 

The angst of being a burden is a significant struggle for many people in society. No better place can this be seen than in the 2021 report on Medical Assistance in Dying from Health Canada which reported that in 35.7% of cases, patients believed that they were a “burden on family, friends or caregivers”. Furthermore, 17.3% of cases cited “isolation or loneliness” as reasons for wanting to end their lives. These figures reflect a deep brokenness in our society.  

So, what is to be done? 

It seems cliché to say, but there is more to life than wealth, and money alone cannot solve the world’s problems. Change of this sort begins with an interior shift. The commitment within oneself to live a better life than what society demands from you. We need a radical remoulding of our societal heart wherein the value of a person is defined not by what they can contribute, but simply by their unique existence. It also requires hope. Hope that whilst the poor will always be with us (Matt 26:11), we can still create positive change by loving the family, friends and strangers around us. 


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Photo by MART PRODUCTION on Pexels.

Daniel Turner

Daniel Turner

Daniel is the Content and Communications Officer for Theos and a producer for The Sacred podcast. He previously worked in the charity sector in operations, content and media. Daniel studied Music at Goldsmiths, University of London, and spent time throughout his degree volunteering for an ecumenical Christian university outreach. He has a strong interest theology, with a specific focus on Catholic liturgy and apologetics.

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Posted 26 May 2023

Assisted Dying, Death, Dignity, Dignity, Love, Relationship


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