Human Dignity

· Human Dignity,Medical Assistance in Dying,Ethics

The noun “dignity” refers to worth or value. It is a common Christian belief that all human beings have human dignity that is intrinsic, innate, or inalienable. A human being has dignity by virtue of being a human being! And there is a theological foundation for this. Our dignity is given by God.

Typically, this is gift is linked with being created in the image of God:

So God created humans in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

That’s a verse many of us are familiar with. Also worth thinking about is another verse that comes a little later on in the book of Genesis. (Well, it comes a little later on the text, but it comes many, many years later on in the history recounted in Genesis.)

Whoever sheds the blood of a human,
by a human shall that person’s blood be shed,
for in his own image
God made humans. (Genesis 9:6)

These verses extend intrinsic dignity to all humans, not just those who follow Jesus Christ. They give us a sense of the importance of human dignity when it comes to how human beings are to act toward each other. (It’s not just about not killing people, though in a moment, it will be made clear that not killing people is an important part of honouring human dignity.) As a gift of God, human dignity is contingent on only one thing: God’s willingness to give it to us. So, we are to regard all people as bearers of God’s image, holders of intrinsic dignity.

We don’t live in a society that defines human dignity in this way. Despite the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights opens by claiming “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” most people define human dignity as an extrinsic property; it is dependent on something beyond our being human. In modern western society, the foundation for extrinsic human dignity is individual autonomy, including the freedom and ability to make choices about one’s own life.

This is easily illustrated by the laws in Canada that permit Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD), that is, the integration of euthanasia and assisted suicide into medical practice. These laws presume a particular understanding of human rights and human dignity that rests exclusively on individual autonomy. It is presumed to be undignified to suffer the loss of control over one’s life or to be dependent on others. It should come as no surprise that a leading advocacy group for MAiD claims the moniker “Dying with Dignity.” Or that Oregon and Washington each calls their state laws the “Death with Dignity Act.” In Canada, the ongoing legal changes that continue to expand eligibility for MAiD show that the belief in extrinsic dignity is going nowhere fast.*

While autonomy in itself is not a bad thing, the Christian faith claims it is not our ultimate goal. In fact, relationships are more important. Paul talks about the interdependent body of Christ. We are to care for the most “unpresentable” or “less respectable” among us because they are indispensable! 1 John 3 claims that following Jesus means loving others to the degree of being willing to die for them. We are created for relationship, just as the first humans were created for each other. Any choices we make must honour the dignity of others.

Understanding human dignity this way is especially important when we engage people who are suffering. In scripture, some of the suffering people shoved to the periphery of society are lame. That concept of being lame works to describe the condition of people with low autonomy today. If you have little control over your life, you are lame.

Many lame people bear a low self-regard. This can be caused by circumstances of health or wealth. But it is taught to them, imposed on them because of the low social regard for lame people. A single observation says it all: “I would never live that way.” And it soon becomes a perceived moral responsibility to let them die on their own terms.

broken image

Melancholy, Albert Gyorgy

Couple this emphasis on autonomy with the preference for citizens who can contribute to the economy, who are self-sufficient, who aren’t making demands for greater accessibility, who aren’t taking up hospital beds.

Even most Christians—dare I say it?—have lost our skill for caring for the lame. We have somehow misinterpreted the Christian virtue of compassion. Compassion is not ending the suffering of others by helping them end their lives. Compassion literally means suffering with those who suffer. Easing their pain and bearing what is left of it with them. Taking in their feelings of shame and grieving with them. Showing them that they remain part of us.

When the lame receive care, when they are regarded as having dignity despite what they suffer, isn’t there a chance that they will see their value as not dependent on their autonomy? That they are worth being a burden to us?

The lame may always be with us, but not to give us something to do. The lame are with us because God loves them. And we benefit from learning to recognize their inherent, indelible, inviolable God-given dignity, even sacrificing our own comfort for theirs. One day, we may be lame too.

Even the poorest, sickest human being has dignity. Intrinsic human dignity is not something that can be elevated by social rank or diminished by a hospital gown. You and I are responsible to be a witness to society, calling everyone to regard the lame as bearers of intrinsic human dignity. Regarding people this way, treating them this way, is primary to
our identity in Christ.

* At the time of writing, eligible persons must have a “grievous and irremediable condition,” but they are not required to explore all options to relieve their suffering. This is a time when palliative care is not universally accessible. The law also makes eligible those who sole cause of suffering is a disability, many of whom are insufficiently supported by social services. It is expected that in March 2024, eligibility will be expanded to persons who sole cause of suffering is mental illness. In addition, advance directives for MAiD and making MAiD accessible to mature minors are under consideration.

This passage recalls the blood of Abel spilt by his brother Cain and the curse God put upon him for murder: “And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen, your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:10-12).