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It’s a phrase that is frequently brought up in political debates and conversations in Washington and state capitols. It’s used to justify or defend viewpoints, actions and decisions. And it can be a rallying cry to fight injustice.
But behind all the rhetoric and messaging, what does human dignity actually mean? And what is our role as pro-life Christians to protect the dignity of all humans?
What is Dignity?
The word dignity comes from the Latin word “dignitas,” which means “worthiness.” A Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of the word reads: “the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed.” But where does this worth or value come from?
Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, the Acting Director at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University, wrote an essay for The President’s Council on Bioethics in 2008 identifying different senses of the word dignity. The two senses we need to focus on are “attributed dignity” and “intrinsic dignity.”
Attributed dignity, as Sulmasy describes it, is the worth or value that individuals or groups assign to others. It can be based on social standing, special skills or attributes, or virtually any other factor the individual or group wants to use. Also noteworthy, attributed dignity always involves a choice, and those who assign it can just as easily take it away.
Intrinsic dignity, on the other hand, is the worth or value that humans have simply for being human. It is not based on social standing, abilities or the opinion of other individuals or groups.
For those of us with a Christian worldview, intrinsic dignity comes from God. We believe that all humans – from womb to tomb – have extraordinary intrinsic value because we are all made in the image of God.
However, as you know, we live in a culture that largely does not follow the Christian worldview, and therefore, does not always subscribe to the belief that all humans have intrinsic dignity.
What Happens When Attributed Dignity Takes Over
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how statements and viewpoints on dignity can come into conflict when society adheres to attributed dignity, rather than intrinsic dignity.
Looking at New York as an example, on March 24, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo held a press conference to discuss measures the state would be taking to protect its citizens from the fatal impact of COVID-19. In the press conference, Cuomo said:
“My mother is not expendable, your mother is not expendable and our brothers and sisters are not expendable, and we’re not going to accept the premise that human life is disposable, and we’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life. The first order of business is to save lives, period. Whatever it costs.”
When I first saw this statement, I shockingly found myself agreeing with the governor. He rightly rejects the idea that human life is expendable, and without taking any background knowledge or history into account, it would seem the governor is an ardent supporter of the intrinsic dignity of all human life. And I do want to be clear here – I commend him for his efforts to protect his citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But a deeper examination reveals a tremendous disparity between these comments and his past actions regarding protecting the lives of the most vulnerable population on the planet – preborn humans.
In January 2019, Cuomo signed the Reproductive Health Act into law, a bill which expanded abortion access in the state. New York already has one of the highest abortion rates in the country, and this legislation virtually guaranteed even more innocent lives would be lost to abortion. They even lit up New York City in pink in support of Planned Parenthood.
In response to this, I sent a letter to the governor and penned an opinion piece asking for Cuomo and all our nation’s leaders to expand their actions to protect all vulnerable populations, including those in the womb. It comes as no surprise that at the time of this writing, I still haven’t received a response from the governor.
What this means for the pro-life Christian
The case with Cuomo demonstrates the pitfalls of adhering to any opinion or viewpoint of dignity other than our God-given intrinsic dignity. We as Christians must not confuse attributed dignity with intrinsic dignity. In fact, we must completely reject the idea of attributed dignity.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have gone to tremendous lengths to protect each other. We have changed our lifestyles, avoided coming into contact with anyone, and shut down entire states.
I only hope that when life does return to some form of “normal,” our culture will work as urgently to protect the dignity of preborn humans as we have in the last few months to protect the dignity of born humans.