Saturday, November 15, 2008

Question of the Day: Euthanasia

Last week, my rabbit Hyzenthlay had half of her left front foot amputated due to a malignant tumor. She was remarkably mobile, even the next day, for having undergone such a severe surgery.

The biopsy results came back yesterday. We had determined that if they revealed that the cancer had continued to spread beyond the amputation site, we would have her euthanized because her quality of life would be enormously diminished. Although three-legged dogs can be rather content, because of a the way that a rabbit moves, the complete amputation of her leg would leave her very badly crippled.

Her brother Inlehain's death was sudden and therefore quite traumatic. But if we had to put her down (which we will, when and sadly not if, the cancer returns) she would have lived a full six years. That is a good life for a rabbit, and we were content with that possibility.

But as I spent all day yesterday on airplanes, I had plenty of time to think. And I got to thinking about how we justify the euthanasia of animals on the basis of pain and suffering (or anything else) and reject a similar rationale for the euthanasia of humans.

If we accept that humans have an afterlife, and animals do not (a premise that I do not share), then the death of an animal is more final than that of a human. So if anything, we should be even more inclined support euthanasia for humans than for animals.

How have we, as a society, made this distinction?

So I put the question to you, dear readers:

How do we justify the euthanasia of animals but reject it for humans?


Larry B said...

Along the same lines as eating animals and not eating humans.

For me it involves the notion that humans are separate from animals because we have a level of consciousness that animals do not obtain. I generally think of that as our soul.

Animals who are suffering and in pain do not rationalize their suffering, so ending chronic suffering in an animal can be thought of as a merciful act by a human.

Because we can rationalize the our suffering and many of us believe in a higher purpose for our existence and suffering, it seems that it is amoral for us to assume that we can determine for others when they should be required to terminate their lives.

The Ironic Catholic said...

Sorry about your rabbit, John....

I'm fond of John Kavanaugh's proposal of a radical personalism as the basis of human life issues. You can find it in *Who Count As Persons?* I also think that death is about the grand human project of giving one's life back to God--but in cooperation with God's will (that is, work with God in accepting one's natural death). A Christian Death is heroic and dignified, and best honored by accompaniment.

This is not to dismiss the animal kingdom. I would be fine with abolishing euthanasia for animals, but it does seem unnecessarily cruel to allow an animal that cannot understand what is happening to suffer until death. But I think with animals, we are operating with a different set of ethics based on the challenge of pain. With human beings, we believe that there are ethical decisions that transcend human pain. Thank God Jesus didn't consider the cross too painful to embrace.

Kansas Bob said...

I have heard people often speak of "Death with Dignity" as if the way one dies can dignify one's life. It seems that suicide and euthanasia are things that don't add dignity to a person's life.

the reverend mommy said...

Asking the wrong person, as I have given my 20 year old cat IV fluid everyday for a while and allowed her to do serious damage to my wood floors with her little "accidents."

Also, I cleaned daily my crippled dog's rear end for 6 months and gave him serious pain killers until he finally went to sleep.

The last animal I put to sleep was unintentional -- he had mouth tumors and never woke up after surgery.

And I have a daughter who is a strict vegetarian -- and I eat meat sparingly.

Thus, I am one of those bleeding hearts who do not put their animals to sleep but allow them "Death with Dignity." Palliative care, yes. Euthanasia, no. Cost money? Yes. If you are not willing to pay it, don't get a pet.

DogBlogger said...

I guess I'm somewhat close to RevMommy on this one, in that we did do palliative care for Cub. But she deteriorated to the point of being completely unresponsive -- the liver failure had led to ammonia building up in her brain -- and so we made the call to go with euthanasia. I believe it was the right decision, because there was absolutely no chance at recovery. Which does make me wonder about similar situations with humans. With people, we wait days and weeks for the anguish of the end to play out. I don't have an answer there.

So sorry to hear about Hyzenthlay's illness, John. I know you're caring for her well and in keeping with your ethical standards and values. Blessings to you.

John said...

Ironic Catholic wrote:

This is not to dismiss the animal kingdom. I would be fine with abolishing euthanasia for animals, but it does seem unnecessarily cruel to allow an animal that cannot understand what is happening to suffer until death.

This is a very good point. But I wonder: could not the same argument be made with infants or those with dementia or profound mental retardation?

the reverend mommy said...


I believe that "euthanasia" occurs naturally when sufficient palliative care is given. That is, when the pain is so very great and the body is so very weak, the amount of drug given to alleviate the pain will suppress the autonomic system that they indeed are "put to sleep." Human or animal.

Hospice is a wonderful thing.

Bram said...

Hope this discussion is still alive (no pun intended) enough for me to share my opinion. Talking about euthanasia is a good thing, it's a necessary decision we should all make. I live in a country where euthanasia is legal, only under very specific terms. I agree with the idea that a sane person (we could have a discussion on what 'sane' could mean) should always remain the final person to have a say in this. If no improvement of health is possible, and a period of pain/misery are all that's between this person and a sure death, I do believe this person should be able to ask for euthanasia.

I read Larry B call it a 'merciful act' when a human ends an animal's pain, I don't see how this differs in any way.

Daily Yoghurt said...

I must agree with Bram on this one. Though all opinions are fair and well grounded, I too think dignity in death (or dying) could be achieved by one's own decision to leave their earthly existence when dignity in life is no longer a certainty.

Keeping someone from making this heavy decision only based on my own believes and convictions could mean not only a extension (a minute, a day, a month?) in a life of pain but a passing in pain as well, which can never be a good thing.

This goes for pets (or all animals for that matter) as well. To what extend can we 'feel' the pain and can we base our decision to terminate or extend life? I too have a cat who (rather than which) is of old age. I cannot judge if he's ever in pain, let alone understand his 'experience' of feeling pain at all. Maybe it's completely different from our own perspective on 'what pain is'.

Interesting question though, thank you for sharing.

julirt1964 said...

My mother-in-law was not euthanized, but no care was given to extend her life. She had a massive leak in her brain which caused her body to shut down. The medical staff explained respitory and feeding options. At the end, we decided to let her life end. The doctor said, "We can keep her here for as long as you like, but we can do nothing to make her better."
I spent the last three weeks of her life watching her slowly wither away while she lost the ability to control her bladder and bowls, lost the ability to speak and even the ability to blink.
Granny was a very proud person who always lept herself neat and well groomed. She would have rather gone to be with the Lord than to stay here in the shape she was in.