Death with dignity, or physician-assisted suicide, has become a recent topic of discussion in the United States as Brittany Maynard, a 29 year-old with a terminal brain tumor, decided to forgo treatment options and chose death with dignity. The Death with Dignity laws in Oregon, Washington, and Vermont allow for terminally ill, mentally competent patients to apply for medication to end their lives. Maynard explains her choice as not a fear-based decision, but a logic based choice. She chose to end her own life, before the symptoms of her brain tumor began to change her quality of life, diminish her memoires, and alter her personality. Maynard goes on to say that our society has a fear of death and that doctors view death as failure. Even though her disease was terminal, her physicians referred her to an oncologist, recommending chemotherapy and radiation: treatment that Maynard claims would have lowered her quality of life without giving her more time.
While the debate may center on whether or not individuals have the right to choose their own day of death with most backlash coming from religious organizations, my question is whether fear of death is a construction of society or is it instinctual? I plan to explore this concept in my third paper.
The human nervous system is equipped to deal with life threatening situations in one of two ways, fight or flight. Controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, the response to a fear stimulus is instantaneous and instinctual. With the action of several fast acting hormones, we our bodies enable us to better fight or flee for our lives. It is an instinctual will to live.
Suicide does not fit into this instinct. So is suicide against our nature? Is losing the will to live a consequence of society? In the late 1800’s Durkheim published findings that suicide is due to an imbalance in society’s degree of social integration, moral regulation, or both. So in some ways, death can be a construct of society.
In Dawn, the “rescued” humans are kept isolated, dependent, and uniformed. However there are many examples in which these humans (lacking integration/ lacking a framework of society) could have attempted suicide but do not. When Lilith is given the opportunity to end her life following her insight to her future of “trading” with the Oankali, she choses to live. In The Year of the Flood, Toby stockpiles for the inevitable waterless flood. She saves enough food to survive on, retrieves her gun for protection, and locks herself away from the population that could pass on deadly germs. She lives isolated for months on end and never loses her will to live. Although they may have imbalances in integration due to their circumstances that Durkheim’s findings show often leads to suicide, they chose to live.
So basically, I will seek to discuss the human will to live and whether the fear of death is instinctual or a construct of society by focusing on Toby and Lilith’s continual will to live despite their dismal circumstances.