Dignity is a useless concept

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.327.7429.1419 (Published 18 December 2003)
Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:1419

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  1. Ruth Macklin, professor of medical ethics (macklin@aecom.yu.edu)
  1. Department of Epidemiology and Population Health, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, 1300 Morris Park Avenue, Bronx, NY 10461, USA

    It means no more than respect for persons or their autonomy

    Appeals to human dignity populate the landscape of medical ethics. Claims that some feature of medical research or practice violates or threatens human dignity abound, often in connection with developments in genetics or reproductive technology. But are such charges coherent? Is dignity a useful concept for an ethical analysis of medical activities? A close inspection of leading examples shows that appeals to dignity are either vague restatements of other, more precise, notions or mere slogans that add nothing to an understanding of the topic.

    Possibly the most prominent references to dignity appear in the many international human rights instruments, such as the United Nations' universal declaration of human rights.1 With few exceptions, these conventions do not address medical treatment or research. A leading exception is the Council of Europe's convention for the protection of human rights and dignity of the human being with regard to the application of biology and medicine.2 In this and other documents “dignity” seems to have no meaning beyond what is implied by the principle of medical ethics, respect for persons: the need to obtain voluntary, informed consent; the requirement to protect confidentiality; …

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