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The Ambiguity of "Dignity" in Embryo Research and Judicial Decisions

Mark D. White

An article in the new issue of Bioethics (25/1, January 2011) by Inmaculada de Melo-Martín titled "Human Dignity in International Policy Documents: A Useful Criterion for Public Policy?" examines several EU documents governing enbryo research to see if their regulations motivated by proecting human dignity are useful, informative, and/or effective.

From the abstract:

I argue that by using human dignity as a criterion to determine the permissibility of particular human embryo research practices, these documents cannot aid in identifying research that would be contrary to human dignity. Thus, they fail to guide public policy on embryo experimentation. Their use of human dignity as a criterion makes their task of offering guidance unfeasible because the concept as used in these documents is too vague and is applied in contradictory ways. I discuss the main goals of these documents and their claims in relation to human embryo research. I then discuss how they have influenced public policy in several countries. Finally, I show that although these Council of Europe treaties attempt to serve as public policy guides in the area of embryo research, they fail to do so.

She concludes that given the vagueness of the conception of dignity, the uncertainty of whether dignity applies to embryos, and the different cultural value systems in the constituent countries, the concept of dignity has little use and may lead to a least cmmon denominator effect in which the term is reduced to whatever weak meaning the member countires can agree on:

My arguments here are thus concerned not with the usefulness of this concept, in helping us to reflect on a variety of issues that arise with the development and implementation of new biotechnologies, but with its value as a criterion for public policy in this area. For the concept to be helpful in assisting public policy-makers to decide what types of biomedical practices to prohibit or rigorously to control, one must have a clear understanding of what human dignity is, what entities are bearers of human dignity, and how human dignity is at stake.

It might be that, at least in international public policy documents, such clarity and specificity cannot be offered. International documents call for the support of a variety of countries often with very different values for their provisions to be effective. Given the controversial nature of the concept of human dignity, however, and the existence of various and inconsistent understandings of such a concept, it seems unlikely that a clearly defined concept would attract such necessary international support. It might be wise then simply to discard the concept of human dignity as a public policy criterion in biomedical research decisions. In international settings, an insistence on using the ill-defined concept as a way to help institutions to promote polices determining what kinds of biomedical practices should be allowed or forbidden seems not just ineffective, but actually counterproductive. Different States will certainly interpret human dignity in diverse ways and as a consequence are likely to enact legislation that conflicts with other States’ legislative efforts. If human dignity turns out to be consistent with a number of conflicting policies that different countries can adopt, then it fails to guide; thus it fails to serve as a criterion. Doubtless, such a failure poses the possibility that the concept will become empty and without relevance. Given the good that can come of considering human dignity when discussing new biomedical developments, this would be a significant loss indeed. (p. 45)

This conclusion reminds me of Helen Knowles' paper "Courting Dignity," in which she examines the use of the term dignity in U.S. Supreme Court decisions, and Michael Dorf's 2008 blog post "Give Me Dignity or Give Me Death," which is critical of the ambiguous meaning of the term in (then) recent judicial opinions.

It's easy for Kantians (like me) to proclaim dignity to be, at bottom, the ultimate foundation for all legal and policy decisions, but we must be mindful that ours is not the one and only accepted meaning of the term; Alan Gewirth's sense of dignity is much more supportive of positive welfare rights, for instance. (See my paper "Kantian Dignity and Social Economics" for more.) But it would be tragic, given its central importance to so many systems of thought, if some common ground cannot be found to guide decisions in policy and law, especially since the disputes in which dignity is likely to be invoked are also likely to be among the most morally critical ones.


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