Oh Margaret Somerville, It's Not About Your Dignity, It's About My Suffering!
Euthanasia advocates argue respect for human dignity requires that euthanasia be legalized and opponents of euthanasia argue exactly the opposite, that respect for human dignity requires it remain prohibited. In short, the concept of human dignity and what is required to respect it is at the centre of the euthanasia debate, but there is no consensus on what we mean by human dignity, its proper use, or its basis.
American political scientist Diana Schaub says "we no longer agree about the content of dignity, because we no longer share ... a 'vision of what it means to be human'." She's correct. So what are the various interpretations of dignity and what can they tell us about "what it means to be human"?
Intrinsic dignity means one has dignity simply because one is human. This is a status model - dignity comes simply with being a human being. It's an example of "recognition respect" - respect is contingent on what one is, a human being.
Extrinsic dignity means that whether one has dignity depends on the circumstances in which one finds oneself and whether others see one as having dignity. Dignity is conferred and can be taken away. Dignity depends on what one can or cannot do. Extrinsic dignity is a functional or achievement model - dignity comes with being able to perform in a certain way and not to perform in other ways. It comes with being a human doing. This is an example of "appraisal respect" - respect is contingent on what one does.
These two definitions provide very different answers as to what respect for human dignity requires in relation to disabled or dying people, and that matters in relation to euthanasia.
Under an inherent dignity approach, dying people are still human beings, therefore they have dignity. Opponents of euthanasia believe respect for human dignity requires, above all, respect for human life and that while suffering must be relieved, life must not be intentionally ended. Taking life, except where that is the only way to save life as in justified self-defence, offends human dignity. That is why capital punishment is wrong and why euthanasia is wrong.
In fact, the original primary purpose of the concept of dignity was to ensure respect for life. It's ironic that it has been turned on its head by pro-euthanasia advocates to promote exactly the opposite outcome.
Under an extrinsic dignity approach, dying people are no longer human doings - that is, they are seen as having lost their dignity - and eliminating them through euthanasia is perceived as remedying their undignified state.
Pro-euthanasia advocates argue that below a certain quality of life a person loses all dignity. They believe that respect for dignity requires the absence of suffering, whether from disability or terminal illness, and, as well, respect for autonomy and self-determination. Consequently, they argue that respect for the dignity of suffering people who request euthanasia requires it to be an option.