Proponents of physician-assisted suicide have used the term “death with dignity” to present their cause in a positive way. The Catholic Church uses the word “dignity” to articulate the exact opposite view about assisted suicide. According to the Church’s official teaching, “An act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator” (CCC 2277).
The word “dignity” is used in very different ways and assigned very different meanings by those on opposite sides of contemporary disputes about the morality and legality of assisted suicide. “Human dignity” is cited by the Catholic Church as a reason to oppose assisted suicide. The Church uses this phrase frequently when presenting its teachings on the immorality of intentionally harming or destroying innocent human beings. Human “dignity” has a definite meaning in this context, a meaning that is rooted in a Christian anthropology, which is to say, a Christian understanding of what a human being is and what human life is for.
A Catholic Christian anthropology proceeds from the understanding that human life is a gift. As human beings, we are who we are because of how God has made us. We are, as the Bible says, “wonderfully made” (Ps 139:14), unique among the beings of earth in our understanding and freedom. The human being’s unique status (human exceptionalism, if you will) is expressed in many ways in the creation accounts in the Book of Genesis. There, God declares, “Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness” (Gen 1:26). The Book of Genesis later states, “The Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gen 2:7). Uniquely created in God’s image and after God’s likeness, human beings have a value and dignity surpassing all other beings on earth. Gifted with God’s breath of life, human beings are endowed with unique spiritual souls.
According to this Christian anthropology, human dignity is expressed and manifested by its characteristically human activities. Human understanding and free will are especially God-like capacities that show forth the God-imaging quality of the human soul. However – and this is a crucial point – a human being is not accorded dignity because she can demonstrate her humanity through those activities. A human being is accorded dignity simply because she is human. God gives His breath of life to every human being. As human beings, our dignity is based on who we are and the unique and wonderful way in which God has made us. It does not depend on whether or in what degree we are currently able to express our humanity through characteristic activities.
Consequent upon this understanding of human beings and human dignity is the Christian notion of human inviolability. Because human being have the dignity of being God’s image-bearing creatures, human life ought not be violated. This is expressed retributively in God’s words to Noah: “Anyone who sheds the blood of a human being, by a human being shall that one’s blood by shed; for in the image of God have human beings been made” (Gen 9:6). It is expressed more famously in the commandment God issued through Moses: “You shall not kill” (Ex 20:13). Because human beings have the dignity of being made in God’s image, the human being should not be killed.
In contrast to this Christian anthropology is the anthropology in which it is possible to call assisted suicide “death with dignity.” According to this way of thinking, “dignity” is a quality that a human being may or may not possess. To say assisted suicide enables “death with dignity,” implies that, if a person is not made able to kill himself, he might suffer and die without dignity. Dignity, so understood, is not something that human beings possess by virtue of being human. Dignity is accorded to human beings based on what is judged to be their quality of life. A person’s dignity thus depends on his ability to function in characteristically human ways: to think and choose and be a productive member of society.
Those who promote “death with dignity” imply that the lives of those who suffer terminal illness may not be dignified or have worth. The Catholic Christian view is that human dignity is the inalienable possession of every human person whom God has created in His image. The dignity of the dying person is not lessened by the condition of her health. God has gifted her with His breath of life and God will never revoke that gift.