There is a trend across western societies in favour of euthanasia, to which Britain is no exception. The prospect of a change of government later this year makes it likely that Britain may soon take the first steps towards legalising it, under the heading of “assisted suicide”. Meanwhile, the Vatican has waded into the general debate this week, declaring laws that permit euthanasia or assisted suicide are an affront to human dignity.

There is merit in that argument. Human dignity is closely connected to human rights. In the British case, the problem is that the Suicide Act of 1961 removed the risk of prosecution from those who had attempted suicide, but not from those who had tried to assist them. This change in the law produced a unique anomaly – that it is a criminal offence to help someone do something which it is lawful for them to do.

Guidance subsequently issued to police and prosecutors wisely urged them to exercise discretion where the motive was honest and compassionate. In such circumstances, the sick person was unlikely to have been able to die by suicide without help; they were unable, in short, to avail themselves of the freedom to kill themselves the 1961 act had recognised. Most of the debate on assisted dying has concentrated on the issue of personal autonomy – the argument that someone reaching the end of their life should have the right to choose the manner and moment of their death.

That looks rational enough at first glance. But here is where

Dignitas Infinita – the Vatican document on human dignity – is helpful. Dignit y, which is intrinsic for human life and therefore inalienable, is not a purely individual matter. It has a social dimension. Anything which injures the dignity of one injuries the dignity of all. Anything which weakens the protection of the right to life of one, weakens it for all.

Take a person in hospital who is terminally ill and, in spite of receiving good medical care, is in severe pain. Their illness may be the result of unwise lifestyle choices, but at this time of sickness they are not responsible for their plight. This is fundamental to how they are regarded by family and friends, by medical staff and by the community at large. It is the community’s duty to care for them unconditionally in their powerlessness and weakness. But if assisted dying were to be legalised, that would change. Medical staff would be obliged to offer them the option of a quick death. If they rejected the offer, they would become responsible for their situation. They would be choosing to occupy that precious hospital bed; not to release property they own for the use of the next generation.

They would be choosing to tie up scarce resources to which they do not have an inalienable right. They would be being selfish. That is how they would perceive it, and how they would be perceived. The legalisation of assisted dying would mark a fundamental collapse in the unwritten covenant – the duty of care between the sick and society – that is the bedrock of a society that respects their dignity and their rights.



Because “gender transition” has become a hot political potato, a lengthy Vatican document that mentions it only briefly nevertheless made the headlines. Dignitas Infinita explores the concept of human dignity from many angles, and comes firmly to the conclusion that it is neither a legal fiction nor a human invention but an intrinsic property of all human life from conception to death. The defence and promotion of human dignity is at the heart of the Church’s mission and purpose.

The strength of Dignitas Infinita is that it weaves the defence of the dignity of those who are threatened by poverty, war, discrimination, violence and abuse together with the unborn and those at the end of their lives – the more familiar objects of Catholic concern – into a seamless garment. It is at its weakest, however, when it applies its general doctrine to some particularly complex modern challenges, including “gender theory”. It does not accept the separation of sex and gender, as the theory requires, and it condemns any attempt to alter a person’s sexual identity by medical intervention such as drugs or surgery as a violation of personal dignity.

It has no sympathy, therefore, with the theory’s insistence that gender is non-binary or that an individual may have a gender identity different from the one, as the saying goes, “assigned at birth”. This is where the authors of the document should have been more cautious. Two examples serve as a warning. The first is Galileo, who was accused of heresy for

denying that the sun rotated round the earth. The second is homosexualit y, which the Church for a long time saw either as a delusion, a moral failing – that is to sa y, a sinful choice – or a mental illness. We have learnt that the earth goes round the sun and we have learnt that being gay is a regularly occurring nonpathological minority variant in the human condition. There is a danger that in approaching a transgendered person, the Church will see not the person in front of them but an individual either sinful, mentally ill or deluded.

Brain science has made a lot of progress in recent years, and has discovered significant differences between the brains of people with XX and XY chromosomes. New Scientist reported recently there is in neuroscience “a nuanced debate that encompasses gender as well as sex, and is in no way settled”. Given this uncertaint y, it is not impossible that a person with male chromosomes could have a brain with female properties. The Vatican has no competence to decide one way or the other, and perhaps should have had the humility to say so.

And Dignitas Infinita may have missed the bigger picture. A significant element in the debate around transgender theory is a debate within feminism about women. Women’s very existence as a reality and therefore the right of women to have their dignity protected, including in sporting events, is both asserted and denied. Without resorting to stereotypes, there was room for the Vatican to say something significant about female dignity in this debate, and the opportunity was lost.

2 | THE TABLET | 13 APRIL 2024

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