A request to die with dignity

Death vocalist Chuck Schuldiner on album cover Vivus!
Death vocalist Chuck Schuldiner on album cover Vivus! Photo: Relapse Records/ deathband.bandcamp.com

“A request to die with dignity. Is that too much to ask?” – Death, ‘Suicide Machine’

Many of my readers know that I am a fan of the metal group Death. Many of Death’s songs, much to my liking, have philosophical themes which lead listeners to ponder deep questions about human existence.

The songs ‘Suicide Machine‘ and ‘Pull the Plug‘ deal with themes of suicide — particularly assisted suicide/euthanasia — and appear to show support for people with terminal illnesses who, instead of “prolong[ing] the pain,” want to end their lives prematurely.

Vocalist Chuck Schuldiner sang, “A request to die with dignity. Is that too much to ask?,” “In death they now seek tranquility,” “Extending agony they must be blind,” and “Pull the plug let me pass away/Pull the plug don’t want to live this way” making what appears to be a compelling case for supporting euthanasia.

Newlywed Brittany Maynard, aged 29, has recently appeared in various media outlets announcing to the world that she has been diagnosed with brain cancer and has only six months to live. Rather than dying of natural causes and suffering from the brain cancer, Maynard has elected to end her life via physician-assisted suicide in an area where doing so is legal. Maynard has said, “I don’t want to die. But I am dying. Death with dignity is the phrase I’m comfortable using. I am choosing to go in a way that is with less suffering and less pain.”

Religious traditions concerned with a seemingly non-negotiable dignity of life (see here for one example from a Catholic perspective) typically oppose assisted suicide on grounds that because human life has some natural dignity [endowed by God] it should not be willfully ended under any circumstances. Catholics — using this line of thought — will generally also oppose the death penalty, abortion, and murder (although theories of just war and ideas on self defense can seemingly allow for some wiggle room with this idea of natural dignity).

A Catholic perspective arguing against euthanasia runs contrary to [non-Catholic] perspectives on personal liberties and individual autonomy which generally empower individuals to make decisions about their lives absent unjustified harm to oneself and/or others.

In the case of euthanasia, it especially seems to matter that the choice to end one’s life is informed and reasonable lest — as opponents of euthanasia would argue — undue harm is inflicted and self-destructive actions are taken. Is Maynard’s situation one in which harm and self-destructive actions are warranted?

This undated photo provided by the Maynard family shows Brittany Maynard. Maynard Family/AP Photo
This undated photo provided by the Maynard family shows Brittany Maynard. Maynard Family/AP Photo

Surely, not all reasons people have for ending their lives are informed. Mental health professionals rightly pathologize suicidal thoughts coupled with intent, means, and a plan. In the case of a terminal illness, much different than pathological plans for suicide, the case to end one’s life is compelling – there exists a chronic condition which ultimately will end one’s life and an individual wants to avoid a high level of pain. Maynard’s decision is an informed one backed with good reasons made in a right state of mind.

Perhaps this dignity of life Catholics speak of can be preserved through an early ending of life absent a high level of pain caused by brain cancer. Is there much dignity — or really any level of human flourishing — in dying a very painful death in which natural bodily functions may not function in a proper way? Ought Maynard — on a moral and legal level — to be empowered to end her life should she desire and the circumstances warrant it in a society in which we are generally granted personal autonomy and individual liberty?

While individual Catholics or other individuals may oppose euthanasia and not want to end their lives early if diagnosed with a terminal illness, I don’t believe this sentiment should be binding on all within a pluralistic society. Rather than prolonging the pain, individuals ought to have an ability to opt-out — to end their lives early given a diagnosis of a terminal disease — and make choices about their own lives without interference from governmental officials or imposition of Catholic teachings unless, of course, they desire Catholic teachings and interference from government.

We can both value life and support an individual’s moral and/or legal right to make informed decisions about their lives — euthanasia included — especially in cases of ending one’s life prematurely in the case of terminal illness. My valuing of life extends others bodily autonomy and personal liberties by which they can make informed decisions.

As always, feel free to comment below. This piece, designed to be no longer than 800 words, will not fully cover a vast topic such as euthanasia, but hopefully will inspire some self-reflection and discussion.

Justin Vacula

Justin Vacula hosts the Stoic Philosophy Podcast; serves as co-organizer and spokesperson for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society; and has hosted monthly Stoic Philosophy discussion groups for the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia. He has appeared on and hosted various radio shows and podcasts; participated in formal debates and discussions; was a guest speaker for college-level courses; was featured in local, national, and international news; and has been invited to speak at various national, local, and statewide events. Vacula received bachelor's degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, a minor in Professional Writing, and the distinguished W.A. Kilburn Memorial Award for Philosophy from King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is currently living in the Scranton, PA area attending Marywood University's graduate-level Mental Health Counseling program and has worked with the Arc of Luzerne County's Transition to Community Employment program as a teacher's assistant and job coach alongside adult learners with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He also plays poker; volunteers as a member of the website and media team for the Greyhawk Reborn Dungeons & Dragons campaign while playing at events in the Eastern United States; and enjoys metal music.