Dignity. You won’t find it mentioned in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Not once. And yet it is there: dignity is both the foundation and the by-product of that document. Oddly though, dignity is not mentioned by name. Then again dignity rarely takes center stage in politics or public policy.
So it was a rare thing indeed to have dignity rear its head not once but twice earlier this month: in a Supreme Court decision on doctor-assisted death and in a Province of Manitoba decision to allow individuals to change their sex designation on official government documentation without first having to undergo sex-reassignment surgery. Both decisions are welcome ones, precisely because they strengthen and affirm the importance of dignity for all people.
In the case of Carter v. Canada, the Supreme Court has thankfully, finally established that those who do not have the means or ability to do so themselves may seek out and receive the assistance of a doctor in ending their own lives to bring an end to extraordinary pain and suffering.
For some, the very notion of suicide is hard to fathom: surely, those people would ask, no sane person would want to die? Others find the idea offensive for it grants the individual autonomy over a domain they feel belongs to a godly creator — who, it should be noted, would evidently prefer their minions die on his or her terms from a horrible disease (bone cancer in children, for example) he or she thought best to create then inflict arbitrarily upon the world. Nice.
No doubt there may be instances when wanting to die is irrational. As a society we must reach out to those people by showing them compassion, love and kindness — and by helping them restore their human dignity so they may choose to go on living. However, there are other instances when death is absolutely rational: when it is inevitable and is merely a question of how quickly and how painfully it will come about. In those instances, as with the previous ones, we must show that same compassion, that same love, that same kindness — and help those people end their lives with dignity.
As the Supreme Court made plain: “An individual’s response to a grievous and irremediable medical condition is a matter critical to their dignity and autonomy. The prohibition [against doctor-assisted death] denies people in this situation the right to make decisions concerning their bodily integrity and medical care and thus trenches on their liberty. And by leaving them to endure intolerable suffering, it impinges on their security of the person.”
Yes, the Supreme Court’s decision has prompted concerns by some that are absolutely valid. Disability rights’ organizations have raised concerns about how such a decision might affect society’s views about the very notions of suffering, pain and the worthiness of life. Moreover, they also raise very real concerns about the capacity to consent and how that might affect the application of doctor-assisted suicide. It is essential that any legal framework for doctor-assisted suicide take these and other related concerns into consideration for they are valid concerns and lives are at stake.
Thankfully, however, the concerns of some about allowing trans people to change their gender classification without first having to change their sex were not taken into consideration by the Province of Manitoba. Because those concerns, like the concerns of some surrounding doctor-assisted dying, aren’t rooted in reason or logic, but in religiosity and ignorance.
Awareness about and understanding of the trans experience by the general public remains woefully inadequate. Too many still choose to remain ignorant about and shamefully callous towards those whose physical sex does not conform to their gender identity. Like Manitoba Senator Don Plett, who intends to gut Bill C-279 for fear increased protections for people based on gender identity and expression might provide pedophiles and sexual predators with a defence for using washrooms of the opposite sex. Or Florida State Representative Frank Artiles, who is proposing to make it a first-degree misdemeanour for a trans person to enter a “single-sex public facility” that does not match their “biological sex.” Or right here in Winnipeg, where an adult woman freely bullied eight-year-old Isabella Burgos for identifying herself as female, despite having been born with male sex organs. Where is the compassion, kindness and love? Do trans people across Canada and in Florida not deserve dignity? Doesn’t Isabella Burgos? Of course they do. Everyone does. And it is heartening, despite the bullying still occurring in Manitoba’s public schools, that the Province of Manitoba enacted this regulatory change for public record keeping and the issuance of government identification.
Everyone deserves to live with dignity — and ensuring that is so ought to be the mission for any just society. And yet dignity is too often an afterthought in the development of public policy, or worse a hindrance to be dispensed with. Imagine what our society would look like if we made the preservation and promotion of human dignity the cornerstone of every public policy. Just imagine how that might shape our policies on healthcare, transport, education, economics, foreign affairs…
Unfortunately, dignity seems only to be a concern for those who do not have it. The homeless, the poor, the disabled, the trans, the elderly, the dying. For the rest, dignity is rarely considered, and too often freely given away.
Consider for a moment airport security. Most people have at one time in the post-9-11 world experienced it. Being herded like cattle through a long, miserable line; made to strip down and stand in a full-body scanner that reveals every detail of your naked self; wanded, patted down, interrogated. It’s so…undignified. But only because we have allowed it to be so, dignity had to be sacrificed for improving security. If only we had made the preservation of human dignity an integral component of airport screening; by all means do not jeopardize security, but find more creative ways to safeguard air travel that do not sacrifice a bedrock principle of our society.
Would we have been willing to give up our dignity if we truly knew what its loss felt like? If we knew how humiliating it must feel to be robbed of something so fundamental to our being? There is no doubt: the indignity experienced in airports pales in comparison to the indignity our society still inflicts — sometimes with intent, other times out of ignorance — on those at the margins of our society. Magnify those feelings of humiliation and loss a thousand fold. Then empathize: ignorance is no excuse, and malice is downright shameful.
John F. Kennedy once described human dignity as the source of national purpose. Let it be Canada’s, too; for all Canadians, in life and death.