Given that the right to life follows from the dignity that we have in virtue of being human, it is inconsistent with human rights law that the life of any human being can be taken away by appeal to such dignity, writes Dr Gaven Kerr
The Dying with Dignity Bill – which passed the first phase of Oireachtas scrutiny last week – seeks to introduce a framework by which a terminally-ill person may legally choose to end his or her life. In what follows, I want to highlight several problems with this bill pertaining to:
– the dignity of the human person;
– the terminally-ill person; and
– conscientious objection;
To begin with, the motivation for the bill is that a qualifying person, defined by the bill, may have a dignified death. In considering this notion of dignity, we cannot ignore what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), of which Ireland is a signatory, tell us about life and dignity.
The UDHR grounds our human rights on the dignity of every member of the “human family”. The fundamental right which both documents recognise is the right to life, with the various rights following therefrom. Accordingly, an international convention of which Ireland is a signatory recognises that the right to life is a consequence of our dignity.
On this account then, dignity is not something that we have in virtue of certain capacities that we are able to exercise. Rather, we have dignity because we are human, and we can exercise our various capacities, the rights of which are recognised in the UDHR and ECHR, because of our dignity.
Given that the right to life follows from the dignity that we have in virtue of being human, it is inconsistent with this right and the outlook of the human rights documents that the life of any human being can be taken away by appeal to such dignity.
In short, the UDHR and the ECHR both recognise that dignity is only a justification for an affirmation of life (and many other rights), not a justification for its eradication. The Dying with Dignity Bill presupposes an alternative concept of human dignity according to which life can be ended for reasons pertaining to dignity, and this is inconsistent with the human rights documents.
Section 8 of the bill seeks to clarify the meaning of ‘terminally-ill’ for the purposes of the bill. Concerning the terminally-ill person (§8), the bill is problematic.
There is no time provision incorporated into the bill concerning the terminally-ill. The terminally-ill person simply must be suffering from an incurable and progressive illness which cannot be reversed, and of which he or she is likely to die either through the illness itself or complications relating to it. This is an extremely broad catchment net, as there are various conditions which are terminal but through the treatment of which the patient’s life can be lengthened considerably.
The bill makes provision for conscientious objection…however, in making such provision, it significantly undermines it…”
Not only that, there are various illnesses which are incurable, progressive, and from which a patient is likely to die arising from complications relating thereto. Yet such illness can be handled quite effectively allowing the patient to live for many years after initial diagnosis.
Accordingly, the bill envisages patients who whilst suffering from a terminal illness have not reached the end of their lives, in which case it makes provision for individuals to end their lives when such individuals may indeed have much more life in them.
The bill makes provision for conscientious objection (§13). However, in making such provision, it significantly undermines it. According to the bill, a medical practitioner is not obliged to participate in anything authorised by the act; hence the bill recognises that such a practitioner cannot be forced to act against his or her conscience in this respect.
However, the bill goes on to state that should such a practitioner exercise conscientious objection, he or she will be required to make arrangements to transfer the care of the patient to a practitioner who has no such objection (§. 13.3).
It is difficult to see how this section adequately recognises conscientious objection, since even if a medical practitioner has conscientious objection, he or she will still be obliged to co-operate in the facilitation of an activity to which he or she has a conscientious objection.
One can scrutinise the fine details of any legal document for problems, loopholes, unexpected situations etc., but this draws attention away from the fundamental flaw at the heart of this bill. Dignity is not a justification for death, but a justification for the affirmation of life.
Every human being has dignity in virtue of what they are, and this is recognised in the human rights documents. By transposing from human life to the capacities that can be exercised in that life, the bill fundamentally misconstrues the nature of human dignity and the various rights which flow from that. For these reasons, this bill is wrong.
Dr Gaven Kerr is a lecturer in philosophy at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.