Resolution to Respect Dignity


In the last episode of the year, you might expect me to talk about this year’s highlights in bioethics, or predictions for next year. Wesley Smith takes care of that with his annual bioethics predictions, and he seems to hit the target just about every time.[1] And we’ll save the highlights for a future episode. On this, the last day of the year, I can’t resist the temptation to talk about New Year’s resolutions. Don’t worry; this has nothing to do with losing weight, exercise, or getting organized.

I’m inviting you to think about human dignity in a deeper way in the coming year. At The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity, we take human dignity seriously….seriously enough to make it part of our name.

In bioethics, human dignity is usually discussed in philosophical terms. This has to do with the nature of human beings, our moral status, and our ethical obligations to others. Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, who serves on the Presidential Commission on Bioethics, describes three uses of the word “dignity.”[2] One use refers to the value that others confer upon you.[3] Think about how the world admired and valued Nelson Mandela. The second use of dignity refers to people who embody dignity in how they live.[4] We might speak of someone going through chemo with dignity.

Intrinsic dignity—the third use—is the “worth or value that people have simply because they are human.”[5] It’s not about how others value us, or whether we live with dignity. It’s also not about our autonomy, as important as that is. We have intrinsic dignity simply because we belong to the human race.

As Christians, we know our intrinsic dignity comes not from who we are, but whose we are. We are made in the image of God, and we have a unique status in all of creation. We have dignity.        

So, what does that mean for how we regard others? It means that we don’t use others to get what we want, for example as a source for a kidney. A pastor’s wife told me of a church member who flew to the Philippines to get a kidney that was allegedly donated by the son of a business acquaintance. The recipient called it a ‘miracle,’ but, more often than not, transplant tourism involves manipulation.    

Dignity means that we don’t intentionally place burdens on the vulnerable. It means that parents, not children, bear the risks of procreation. We don’t intentionally create embryos we intend to give away or freeze.       

Dignity means that we acknowledge other image bearers as persons. This doesn’t come easily for me. So, I have to ask God to help me. It can be something as simple as greeting the person in the elevator, rather than hiding behind my smartphone.       

How can you take dignity more seriously next year? How can you respect your fellow image bearers? It begins with paying attention to what dignity means, and then paying attention to people.       

[1] Wesley J. Smith, “2013 Will Be a Contentious Year in Bioethics,” The Culture and Bioethics Network,

[2] Daniel P. Sulmasy, “Dignity and Bioethics: History, Theory, and Selected Applications” in Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the President’s Council on Bioethics. March 2008. Available at

[3] This is attributed dignity.

[4] Sulmasy refers to this as inflorescent dignity.


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