"My glioblastoma is going to kill me and that's out of my control," she told PEOPLE last month. "I've discussed with many experts how I would die from it and it's a terrible, terrible way to die. So being able to choose to go with dignity is less terrifying."I shall not comment on the death of Brittany or the circumstances surrounding them. What I shall comment on are views or beliefs intimately tied to cases such as this one. I will only comment briefly in passing on one important issue: There is no right to death.
Death is an absence, a lack, and not a good. There are only natural rights--moral rights--to goods. Technically, there are only rights to actions and states of affairs. There is no right to food: there is a right to having some food or being permitted to farm land for food. But there is no right to being permitted to take the life of an innocent--the delimiting case being oneself. Autonomy or self-ownership are not ultimate goods (or at least not the only ultimate goods which trump all others); neither is pleasure nor the absence of pain. But I shall say no more about the matter in this post.
What I wish to challenge is the notion implied in the above quotation that one who chooses a course of action which involves pain and the ravishing of disease is (or will be) less dignified thereby.
To have dignity is to be worthy of positive appraisal or approbation often taking the form of respect. With disease one can lose some dignity; for instance, one could lose the respect which comes with holding a political office that one can no longer hold because of the disease. All honors bestowed by being a political authority are no more.
But one cannot lose one's ultimate dignity which comes with being a human being created in the image of God. One can only lose that dignity by ceasing to be human (which on an essentialist view of human nature could only come by ceasing to be; and in such a case one does not exist with less dignity).
Yet one can retain dignity--dignity which goes beyond merely being a human--even in the face of great suffering and bodily affliction. For one can have worth bestowed upon one from others. In this regard, I recall my grandfather who was debilitated by a stroke and would eventually die from the complications. Some of his dignity was no doubt gone--the dignity that came from being a good golfer or being the principal of a school, for instance. Nonetheless, he retained dignity and was dignified to the end--not because of the deplorable physical condition that he found himself in; rather, he retained significant dignity because he was dignified to the end by those who loved him.