Does ‘Dignity in Dying’ really give people a dignified death?

Feb 21, 2018 by

by Andrew Grey, Archbishop Cranmer:

Assisted dying is a topic that seems to be constantly debated. Most recently, the British Medical Journal had a series of articles on the topic, and the Noel Conway case has kept the issue in the news.

For many people, it’s an issue about whether people have dignity in death. When the US state of Oregon legalised assisted dying, the law was entitled the ‘Death with Dignity Act’ (1997). The Swiss clinic where people famously have gone for an assisted death is named ‘Dignitas’.

Here in the UK, dignity is equated with assisted dying by the campaign group ‘Dignity in Dying’. It was originally the Voluntary Euthanasia Legalisation Society, but changed its name in 2005. This was, of course, a very effective marketing move – ‘voluntary euthanasia legalisation’ sounds controversial, but who can argue with a campaign for dignity for those who are dying?

But what does ‘dignity in dying’ really mean? The organisation claims to be campaigning for three things:

  • CHOICE over where we die, who is present and our treatment options.
  • ACCESS to expert information on our options, good quality end-of-life care.
  • CONTROL over how we die, our symptoms, pain relief and planning our own death.

It’s clear that choice and control are central to this description of dignity. It’s a quintessentially modern interpretation of dignity, with a characteristic emphasis on the individual and autonomy.

If we accept this definition of a dignified death, we have to accept two further conclusions:

  • Any death with choice, control and access to expert information is dignified.
  • Any death without these three things cannot be dignified.

But both of these are hugely problematic.

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