December 7, 2023

“Human dignity” in European bioethics standards a “flawed” concept

Flawed because it is vague and undefined

Another attack has been launched on the concept of "human dignity" in a leading bioethics journal. Inmaculada de Melo-Martín, of Weill Cornell Medical College, argues in Bioethics that an important European Union document on biomedical research is seriously flawed because it relies on this vague and undefined notion.

The Council of Europe’s 1997 Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity of the Human Being and the Additional Protocol to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity of the Human Being both rely heavily on the term "human dignity". The explanatory report accompanying the convention declares that "The concept of human dignity… constitutes the essential value to be upheld. It is at the basis of most of the values emphasized in the Convention."

However, Dr de Melo-Martín points out that "Surprisingly, neither the Convention nor the Additional Protocol gives a definition of human dignity. It is also unclear whether human embryos are the kinds of entities that possess dignity and if so how it can be threatened or violated. Different parts of the documents seem to support inconsistent interpretations. According to a possible reading of certain passages human embryos are bearers of dignity. Other passages, however, appear to espouse that human embryos do not possess dignity."

Not necessarily a "human dignity" sceptic, Dr de Melo-Martín says that the concept of human dignity could usefully offset an excessive emphasis on autonomy amongst bioethicists, but that it is too clumsy to be used as an instrument of public policy. ~ Bioethics, July 7