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Why dignity is a poor reason to legalise assisted suicide


A growing movement in support of assisted dying is bringing pressure to bear on Australian politicians to enact legislation making it legal for doctors to help people to die. Victoria has already legalised assisted suicide, and now the Western Australian parliament may introduce a similar law. Proponents of assisted suicide argue that the burden of great physical or mental suffering diminishes human dignity and that — in the name of compassion — people should be able to receive assistance to end their lives when they wish to do so.

The word “dignity” is used in equivocal ways, however, and can refer both to an intrinsic dimension of human identity, and to an extrinsic, or social, dimension. Opponents of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide tend to use dignity in its intrinsic sense whereas proponents use it in its extrinsic sense. There is, however, a response to those who argue that the demands of social dignity require the possibility for assisted suicide. This is the therapeutic option known as ‘dignity therapy’, increasingly used in palliative care to restore the social dignity of the terminally ill patient.

In jurisdictions where assisted suicide is legal, the categories of those eligible for assistance in dying are already expanding to include not only those with physical or mental ailments, but also those who are simply weary of life. Avoidance of suffering is only one factor to be weighed in the debate about legalising assisted suicide. It is also vital to consider the harmful impact on Australian culture and society if laws are enacted that permit doctors to kill their patient when prevailed upon to do so. Is the risk of cultural harm, perpetrated in the name of dignity, really one that we should be willing to run?


legislation, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, dignity

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