Why Dignity Is a Poor Reason to Legalise Assisted Suicide


  • Peter Kurti


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?


A Articles/Books/Reports

Bähr, Andreas, ‘Between “Self-Murder” and “Suicide”: The Modern Etymology of Self-Killing’ (2013) 46(3) Journal of Social History 620

Barry, Sir John Vincent, ‘Suicide and the Law’ (1965) 5 Melbourne University Law Review 1

Boudreau, Donald, and Margaret Somerville, ‘Euthanasia Is Not Medical Treatment’ (2013) 106 British Medical Bulletin 45

Chochinov, Harvey Max, Dignity Therapy (Oxford, 2012)

Coope, Christopher M, ‘Death with Dignity’ (1997) 27(5) Hastings Center Report 37

Dutney, Andrew, ‘Christian Support for Voluntary Euthanasia’ (1997) 16(2) Monash Bioethics Review 15

Kamisar, Yale, ‘The Reasons So Many People Support Physician-Assisted Suicide — And Why These Reasons Are Not Convincing’ (1996) 12(2) Issues in Law and Medicine 113

Kass, Leon R, ‘Averting One’s Eyes, or Facing the Music?: On Dignity in Death’ (1974) 2(2) Hastings Center Studies 67

Macquarie, John and James Childress, A New Dictionary of Christian Ethics (Westminster Press, 1st ed, 1967)

Rachels, James, ‘Active and Passive Euthanasia’ (1975) 292 New England Journal of Medicine 78

Somerville, Margaret, Death Talk: The Case against Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2nd ed, 2014)

Yuill, Kevin, Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case against Legalization (Palgrave Macmillan, Kindle edition, 2013)

B Cases

Justins v The Queen [2010] NSWCCA 242

R (Pretty) v Director of Public Prosecutions [2001] UKHL 61; [2002] 1 AC 800

C Legislation

Criminal Code Amendment (Suicide Related Material Offences) Act 2005 (Cth)

Death with Dignity Act, Or Rev Stat § 127.800-127.897 (2017)

Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2017 (Vic)

D Other

Commonwealth, Parliamentary Debates, Senate, 2 December 2015, 9,673 (David Leyonhjelm, Senator)

Cook, Michael, ‘Euthanasia Activist Nitschke Loses Legal Battle to Practice as a Doctor’, National Right to Life News (online, 14 January 2015) <https://www.nationalrighttolifenews.org/news/2015/01/euthanasia-activist-nitschke-loses-legal-battle-to-practice-as-a-doctor/>

Edwards, Jean, ‘Euthanasia: Victoria Becomes the First Australian State to Legalist Voluntary Assisted Dying’, ABC News (online, 29 November 2017) <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-11-29/euthanasia-passes-parliament-in-victoria/9205472>

‘Euthanasia Debate: NSW Parliament Rejects Bill on Voluntary Assisted Dying’, ABC News (online, 17 November 2017) <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-11-16/nsw-parliament-votes-on-euthanasia-bill/9158384>

Hamlyn, Charlotte and Briana Shepherd, ‘David Goodall Ends His Life at 104 with a Final Powerful Statement on Euthanasia’, ABC News (online, 11 May 2018) <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-05-10/david-goodall-ends-life-in-a-powerful-statement-on-euthanasia/9742528>

Kim Borrowdale, ‘Federal Budget: Suicide Prevention Australia Welcomes Investment in Wellbeing of Older Australians’, Suicide Prevention Australia (online, 8 May 2018) <https://www.suicidepreventionaust.org/news/federal-budget-suicide-prevention-australia-welcomes-investment-wellbeing-older-australians>

‘One Door Closes, Another Opens’, The Economist (online, 19 September 2015) <https://www.economist.com/leaders/2015/09/17/one-door-closes-another-opens>

Oregon Health Authority, ‘Death with Dignity Act Annual Reports’, Oregon.gov (Web Page, 9 February 2018) <https://www.oregon.gov/oha/PH/PROVIDERPARTNERRESOURCES/EVALUATIONRESEARCH/DEATHWITHDIGNITYACT/Pages/ar-index.aspx>

Oxford English Dictionary (online at 20 January 2019)

‘Public Opinion — Christian Opposition a Tiny Minority’, Christians Supporting Choice for Voluntary Assisted Dying (Web page, 2018) <http://christiansforve.org.au/public-opinion/>

Somerville, Margaret, ‘Dr Harvey’s Must-Read Book Unpacks What Dignity Means’, Catholic Weekly, (online, 8 June 2017) <https://www.catholicweekly.com.au/margaret-somerville-dr-harveys-must-read-book-unpacks-what-dignity-means>

Vanstone, Amanda, ‘Can’t We Just Be Decent to People at the End of Their Lives?’, The Sydney Morning Herald (online, 1 July 2018) <https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/can-t-we-just-be-decent-to-people-at-the-end-of-their-lives-20180629-p4zok5.html>