More Thoughts on Euthanasia


As you may know, I've been thinking a lot about euthanasia lately. In every country it has been legalized, there has been a quick slide down the slippery slope to end those lives that inconvenience others--the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and especially elderly women who are typically seen as completely useless in our male-dominated societies.

I think there are deep waters here. In a post-Christian society, it is very difficult to push back against the idea that life has meaning even when it is not a physically flourishing life, whether due to age, poverty, or physical/mental disability--even any type of physical/mental suffering. You have to really believe there is meaning in a life that is not physically/mentally flourishing. You have to really believe that there can be meaning in suffering.

That view is in seriously short supply these days. As I've argued throughout many of these blogposts, we are going back to the religion of the brutal pagan days, where life was very cheap, and if someone's life held no use for the powerful, it could be cut short. And if life is now only permitted at the behest of the powerful, the same principle can be used to suggest that a "useful" life is also defined by the powerful to include abuse. When that happens, then all sorts of harm, such as child sexual abuse, are rationalized if the powerful find that abuse is useful for them to be able to inflict on others.

Either life holds inherent dignity both for the person whose life it is and for all who come into contact with that person, or it does not. The moment certain lives are deemed "not worth living," is the moment the ground we walk on turns to moral sand.

One of the things I have pondered is how our views have been shaped by how we treat our pets. I set to one side the issue of farm animals who are killed for their meat. Perhaps I shouldn't, but I would rather consider the class of animals we consider part of our families--our pets.

When I was young, dogs and cats died at home. Now, virtually every loved pet is euthanized. Indeed, this ubiquitous practice is one of the causes of the high rate of suicide among veterinarians. A study published in a Canadian veterinary journal states,

"Veterinarians in private practice are commonly required to engage in the active ending of life, with strong beliefs in quality of life and humane euthanasia to alleviate suffering. Likewise, those in food production are required to end the lives of animals via the slaughter of livestock. Active participation in the ending of animal life may alter views on death and the sanctity of human life, and in the face of life’s challenges, enable self-justification and reduce inhibitions towards suicide, making suicide seem a rational solution."

This suggests that performing euthanasia on animals desensitizes the veterinarian to the sanctity of human life. This, in turn, reduces inhibitions towards suicide. There's more to it, though, because performing euthanasia on others leads to depression, making suicide more likely (from another article):

"While being a veterinarian can be an extremely rewarding career, many factors of the job are highly stressful and emotionally draining. This is particularly the case when it comes to performing euthanasia. In an article in Vet Practice Mag, Melbourne veterinarian Dr Michael Health recalls how it wasn’t until he went to India to participate in a volunteer dogs’ spraying program that he realised the tremendous impact the euthanasia part of his job was having on his health. He explains, “I didn’t realise how regular euthanasing of animals was taking a toll. The Indian project was no-kill, so I had to find solutions to treat various cases in other ways. I was so surprised at how differently I felt in my approach to my work when I was not euthanasing animals on a regular basis, and also not dealing with the distress of pet owners, and my own emotions about doing it" . . . Indeed, Dr Health now schedules short and longer breaks throughout the year in order to take some time away from the task of euthanasia, which he recognised was causing him genuine grief.”

That's very interesting, isn't it? More from the same article:

"Certainly, research has shown that the act of performing euthanasia is a major contributing factor to the wellbeing of veterinarians. In 2014, Lily Tran et al published a paper on the impact of euthanasia on veterinarians’ suicide and depression. It reveals that the more frequently veterinarians perform euthanasia, the more at risk they are of depression. This highlights the stress burden that euthanasia places on veterinarians."

It seems that seeing death as the answer to suffering causes depression in those who are tasked with dealing that death. Does the death-dealing cause the Spirit to flee? Is the Spirit offended by our casual embrace of death? It's telling that Dr. Heath's mood lifted when he worked in a no-kill sanctuary.

I wonder also about how the massive move to euthanasia of pets influences our thinking on the euthanasia of human beings. Consider this case in point--this woman is writing in to an advice columnist. Notice the quick elision between what is deemed good for our beloved pet family members and what is deemed good for our beloved human family members:

"I had two old ladies in my life — my mum and Honey — and mourn them both. Mum was 87 and last year moved to a care home where she became frailer. She hated being so dependent on others and repeated: ‘I just want to go to sleep and not wake up.’ She was doubly incontinent for the last year of her life and hated it. For the last few months she didn’t have the strength to lift herself to standing to get into the wheelchair. Over the summer her health slowly declined: she became bedridden, ate very little, got thinner and thinner. She slept a lot, then couldn’t swallow and had to eat pureed food, then she couldn’t talk properly. Twice I had a phone call saying to come quickly, it wouldn’t be long, and twice she rallied. It was so terribly sad to watch someone suffer so much and slowly decline, but at least she wasn’t in pain. Finally she went to sleep forever on the Bank Holiday weekend with all three of her children with her, and we were all glad for her that it was over.

"My other old lady was our Jack Russell — Honey. She lived to the grand old age of 17 years and four months. The last couple of years were challenging. We had to carry her up and down stairs, out of the back door to go in the garden, on and off the sofa and bed — her favourite place was on our bed. We bought a baby alarm so that we could hear her moving about on the bed if she wanted to come down. She couldn’t walk very far any more so we bought a doggy buggy so that she could still go for a walk. She always seemed happy and we always got a tail wag when we stroked her, and she always enjoyed her food. We discussed end-of-life care with the vet. Then she stopped eating and we knew it was time. The vet gave her a sedative, and then (when she was asleep) a lethal dose. She passed away in my arms. Which of them had a better end of life? I hope I don’t suffer like Mum if I get old, and I hope I never have to watch anyone suffer like that again. It was shocking and depressing and I keep thinking about it. I believe the laws in this area need to change — and would like to know what you think."

Well, then. The line of argument is that we do well by our pets by putting them to death when they are not doing well physically, and so we should show our humans the same respect. "The same respect"!

I suppose it is too much to suggest that we should not kill our loved ones, and that if we would not put down our humans, we should not put down our pets, either? That is, can the arrow of argument ever be reversed?

I am willing to put that stake into the ground. In our family, we will not take extreme measures to keep either our humans or our pets alive. We will choose palliative care for both our humans and our pets to treat disease and relieve suffering. But we will not choose euthanasia for either our humans or our pets. What is good for our pets is good for our humans, and what is good for our humans is good for our pets--but what is good is not euthanasia. I see no other way of avoiding the slippery slope that euthanasia inevitably becomes, and the utterly pernicious effects it has on human society.