I haven’t seen assisted suicide as a headline news item since the last trial of Dr. Jack Kevorkian. With the announcement that a woman by the name of Brittany Maynard is planning to commit suicide on the first of next month I am again seeing the often heated debate over whether or not assisted suicide is proper return. This story is timely for me because I’ve been reading a book on seppuku, which is Japanese ritual suicide for those who do not know.
The big questions people seem to be debating is whether she is going to die with dignity, acting cowardly, or making a horrible decision. It is not my place to judge such matters, my interest is more clinical.
Here in the United States suicide carries a similar stigma as mental health. That is to say the often held believe in the United States is that suicidal people are weak or otherwise less noble than other people. This isn’t a constant in all cultures though. Seppuku, for example, was often viewed as a good way to die. Often times this was because seppuku was a way for a samurai to prevent his family status from being taken or deny his opponent the satisfaction in killing him. But a common thread that seems to run through seppuku is the desire to take control of one’s fate.
She has terminal brain cancer and faces a lingering and painful death. Based on the interviews I’ve read Brittney also sees suicide as a way to take control of her fate. This attitude seems rather foreign to many people who are discussing this story but if you study enough history you will see that it’s an attitude that pops up in several cultures. And it’s an attitude that I sympathize with. I have often said that if I am faced with a painful death that is likely to linger for some time I would probably choose a better way to die (maybe find some two-bit shitbag human trafficker or similar scum and go after him in a almost certain to be suicidal attack). So I understand her motives and can’t argue against her decision. On the other hand I also find it interesting reading arguments against her decision. Regardless this is a complex issue with no objective correct solution, which is kind of ironic because so many people seem to believe they have the absolute correct answer.
As an aside, one of the criticisms I see commonly brought up is that she will be putting her family to a great deal of pain by going through with her suicide. I don’t really get that since they will be suffering a great deal of pain whether she commits suicide or not. The main difference is that her committing suicide will likely reduce the extent of her family’s pain. Anybody who has had to witness a family member suffering a lingering and painful death knows that the pain of watching them suffer is extensive and their death almost comes as a relief.