Euthanasia – part three

This will be my last blog post on this issue, I think.  Time to put this issue to rest, and end the suffering.  Nearly.

Sunset, in the vicinity of Inverloch, January 2011

I finished yesterday with two questions – is euthanasia the right thing to do, and if so, when is the right time to do it?  These are not the only questions remaining to be answered by any means.  There are plenty of other questions worth pondering, some of which I have skipped over, taking the answer for granted, and others I will save for another day.  For example, the definition of euthanasia is something that I have ignored so far in this discussion.  In the treatment of humans it is important to be clear about what euthanasia actually is.  In the veterinary world I am assuming that you all know what I’m talking about.

No question what this drug is for. (Image source - web)

Other questions fascinate me, but they are perhaps less germane to the situation faced by vets and pet owners.  What does our attitude to companion animal euthanasia tell us about euthanasia in people, for example?

The prevailing view in our society is that euthanasia is not really an option for most pets – it is almost compulsory.  To withhold euthanasia from a suffering animal is regarded as cruel.  Increasingly perhaps this is being replaced by the provision of palliative care options, but the way we treat our pets is still radically different from the way we treat our relatives.  How many times have I heard people say, as they whisper their goodbyes to their beloved dog or cat, “it’s a shame we can’t do this for people”, or words to that effect?

If it’s OK to kill your 14 year old dog because he’s old and sick, even though there are good palliative care options, is it also OK to kill your 4 year old dog because you’ve grown tired of the mess he makes in your back yard?

And what does all this say about us people, that we place such a high value on our own lives, and less value on the lives of others who aren’t human, even as the evidence mounts up that some level of cognitive awareness is not the exclusive domain of our species alone?

Is euthanasia the right thing to do?  If we ask this question in the context of animal suffering, pain or disease that has no reasonable prospect to be relieved or reversed, I don’t doubt that most people in our society would say a resounding ‘yes’, and I would include myself in that chorus.  I’ve thought otherwise in the past, for various reasons.  I’ve even thought maybe I could hang up a sign at work saying “no euthanasia here” or words to that effect.  But it seems like every time I had that thought, for whatever reason, pretty soon someone would walk in with a half mangled possum still clinging to life, or a dog in marked respiratory distress with lungs full of cancer, or some equally compelling reason to reconsider the idea of ‘mercy killing’.

So why would someone consider euthanasia wrong –  inherently and unequivocally wrong?

There are religious reasons, of course, most notably the Hindu belief in the sacredness in all life, the belief that each animal has its own karma and that to kill any animal is to condemn it to another round on the wheel of life.  But there are many conflicting religious beliefs, and they can’t all be right.  That means that at the very least all but one must be wrong.  Of all the problems we face in life, the one most likely to arouse feelings of religiousity is death.   Religious faith influences the way people think and feel about death, even though this is demonstrably not rational.  I’m not going to try and argue the case for atheism.  If you are interested, read a book, or watch a movie!  All I will say on the subject is that to the best of my knowledge there are no christian dogs, no buddhist cats, no hindu animals (not even cows) and no non-human fundamentalists of any kind.  Feel free to correct me.

Nonetheless one might still think it wrong to kill another living being, religious belief or not.  That it is wrong to kill another human under most circumstances is widely accepted, and can be argued without reference to religion.   Kant and Bentham and many more since then have shown that morality, ethics and altruism can be independent of ‘god’.  But then maybe those philosophers would also consider euthanasia  to be just as permissible and as necessary for the terminal suffering of humans as for animals.

Anyway, religion aside, you might regard life as an immutable, inviolable right.  I can’t give you life, so what right do I have to deprive you of it?  The problem with this argument is what happens in the middle.  True, I can’t breathe life into a stuffed toy, but I can extend life, alter life, modify its experience.  Often the life that we consider terminating at, say, 14 (dog) years might otherwise have reached its natural conclusion two years earlier, but for our medical and/or surgical intervention.  So we’re already interfering with life and changing its end-point, aren’t we?

Now, when is the right time?

This is the sixty four dollar question, faced by vets every day.  Did I say this would be my last post on euthanasia?  Well, let’s call this post 3(a)…

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