My neighbor just put his dog to sleep. I’ve met the dog – a vivacious, playful lab, unquestionably happy and full of spirit. I went on a walk once with this neighbor and his two dogs. What the man did, he did obviously out of care and compassion, and now he mourns. This is common. Animal euthanasia is legal and accepted. Human euthanasia, on the other hand, is a subject of hot debate and controversy in this society, legal in very few places, and considered by many to be murder.
As most of you realize, euthanasia (literally “easy death,” known as “mercy killing”) and assisted suicide have much in common but are not the same: both are the deliberate ending of life, both generally involve patients in intolerable physical conditions with terminal diagnoses, but the latter is committed by the patient herself with somebody’s help (usually a physician), and the former is done entirely by others because the patient is unable to do so (and sometimes unable to communicate as well). My reflection today is such that it will mostly center on euthanasia rather than assisted suicide. You will see why.
Proponents of euthanasia say that the reason for it is also its purpose: relief from suffering at the end of life. It is the same, of course, for humans and animals. With the advances of medical science and longer lifespans, we are now faced with a growing number of patients who linger on the brink of death, in pain and incapacity, for what feels to them like eternity. On occasion, such a patient wants eternity to end. Some have begun to call this “the right to die.”
Opponents of human euthanasia bring up issues of grave concern, all of which are worth dwelling on for a few lines.
One such issue is high risk of abuse – one way or another ending a life against a person’s will. This might include unscrupulous relatives unwilling to wait for their inheritance, murderous medical professionals, dystopian state system writing off the elderly and sick, and more – and it refers both to the possibility of euthanizing people without their consent and of obtaining consent through emotional influence and psychological pressure.
Another issue, often cited by the “religious” circles, revolves around the principle of God’s sovereignty: assuming control of that which only God must control – in other words, mishandling the gift of life. The idea is that when we are born and when and how we die are not our choice but part of God’s plan for us, and our acceptance of God’s gift of life is living that life earnestly and to its last drop, whatever it brings. The hardest, darkest, most torturous times have been known to result in the greatest revelations and leaps of spiritual development. We drink the cup we’re given because this cup is precious, and we don’t know why. Our unique relationship with God is based on this. If we interfere with this “plan” by committing murder or suicide, we reject the gift and essentially spit in the face of God. It is a very old idea and one on which Catholic doctrine in part officially rests.
The third issue – perhaps one I should have listed first because it is so general – is “sanctity of life.” Basically, any deliberate taking of an innocent life is murder. Murder is bad. Don’t do it. The Sixth Commandment doesn’t say, “Thou shalt not murder unless somebody is really sick.” Note that the Church allows withholding or discontinuing extraordinary medical efforts and letting the patient pass away naturally and even taking such measures of pain relief that the side effect might be death – but not actions the goal of which is death.
The fourth issue, which seems to combine the first three, concerns not just the dying but the rest of us: it’s about care. Opponents of euthanasia, who see every life as a sacred gift – one whose dignity must be preserved until the last moment – and who fear the descent into disposability of the “useless” population, wish to see our society humanized by our care for the suffering and dying. They feel that those of us who must go through a long and hard time before death, besides advancing on our own spiritual journeys, can be of service to our human community because care goes both ways: the cared for and the caretaker both benefit, and the caretaker’s heart grows fuller and richer. They wonder if this is not one reason for suffering in our imperfect world.
I’ll be honest, I have not made up my mind about euthanasia. There are weighty arguments on both sides. The proponents too have a point, and I will now speak for them in my own way: by poking holes in the arguments I just made.
As I mentioned, the Catholic Church is officially against euthanasia, but the Church is not completely pacifist and allows the taking of life under certain circumstances – not only self-defense and defense of others but what is called “just war,” whether or not such a thing is practically achievable. From Augustine through Thomas Aquinas and to the present day, Catholics have justified spilling blood and engaged in military action. Some of their causes history has judged noble, and some, it has not, but whether we want to admit it or not, we make decisions about life and death.
We speak of free will; we direct our journeys. Here is a question that might sound impertinent to you: How is saving a life more humble an act than ending one? If there is “God’s plan” for each of us that involves the time of death, should we not stand back and watch when this time comes to someone near us? And is it always? And if not always, when? And how do we know, when?
Should I pull him out of the water?
Should I learn the Heimlich maneuver?
Should we have invented the tourniquet?
The Church’s teaching authority has recognized the difficulty in defining what is ordinary and what is extraordinary in our rapidly developing medicine, but its solution has become to compare the burden and potential benefit. Basically, there’s only so much suffering I am required to undergo for so much hope before certain voices in the Church declare that I am no longer insulting God by dying.
Here’s something that bothers me: I have cited the “sanctity of life” principle. At some point in the development of philosophy, with the help of Aquinas’ Natural Law, we (and this is a pretty widespread, universally human concept) have decided that life in principle is a good to be preserved. But life on a larger scale always involves death, doesn’t it? Because we are a revolving mortal population, and we eat, and we breathe, and we step on each other, and we till the soil. They call it “the circle of life,” and those who believe in a journey of the self grander than one earthly life also perceive death as a transition. It may be a loss to those left behind, but it is more complex than that. It is not evil.
Now. We actually do have some say in the time of birth, though not our own. We are aware of our partial control of – participation in – birth by the actions of parents. Even the strictest religious do not object to family planning by navigating the natural rhythms of human physiology – because you can’t object to that; it’s simply the fact of life that people choose when to have sex – and most others go further. An even closer analogy with euthanasia occurs when we help a coming birth go well or be less painful by hastening it. We control birth to a certain degree. It is not considered evil. Why be so jealous of God’s domain on the other end of life?
The warnings of possible abuse is a different, social argument – and not to be dismissed. Family members, doctors, the state, and others with decision power and ulterior motives could misinterpret or misrepresent the desire of the dying to be spared further suffering. Humanity would be in great trouble if any interests but those of the patient – be they financial, political, or emotional – begin to guide decisions to end a life. So if we are to declare euthanasia legal, we must be very careful. Still, if we understand this end-of-life choice (and for a moment we are in an area where euthanasia and assisted suicide both come under the purview of our discussion) as a matter of self-determination, our conversation will shift from whether or not it can be allowed to how we can guard its practice. Because when it comes to basic rights and liberties, access to them is non-negotiable. Right?
And then the risk of abuse is just a risk — something that’s present in every area of law, wherever power is given, and just like we do with children’s care and transfer of estates, with political process and contract law – with equal treatment of citizens and access to criminal defense and privacy and freedom of speech – we must find ways to regulate the application of the law, to preserve its purity, to uphold its spirit along with letter to the best of our ability. We usually fail. It’s never pure. It will be abused. But when it comes to basic rights, we don’t repeal the law – we fight against its violations and learn to prevent them.
All right. I just spent quite a bit of time debating euthanasia and assisted suicide of humans with myself, but when I started out, this was not my goal. I started with my neighbor because what his grief over putting his dog to sleep got me thinking was not exactly whether euthanasia is okay or not but why we treat it differently for people and for dogs.
We put our dogs to sleep – and our hamsters, cats, and horses – when they become old or incurably sick. Keep in mind, I am not talking here about farm animals we slaughter for meat or animals we exploit for milk, wool, or eggs. That’s a different discussion. I am talking about animals who are pets, whose “owners” consider them family members, love them truly, care for them, talk to them, are lost without them, won’t go on vacation if the pet cannot be comfortable in the meantime, spend as much time and money on them as they do on their children, buy them health insurance, spa treatments, vitamins, and hotel rooms, send out Christmas cards featuring the pets in the center of the family, and make feeble attempts to learn their pet’s language.
In fact, what IS the difference between euthanizing a pet and euthanizing a human family member?
In both cases, you would have a creature (God’s creature, if you think that way) in a great deal of pain, with a terminal diagnosis, with no hope of recovery, and a short time left. It will only get worse. A painful death is approaching. In both cases, you love the one before you dearly and will miss him and mourn for him. In both cases, the patient is unable to exercise control over her fate.
It appears that the only difference is the very fact that one is human and the other is animal – something about our conception of animals that makes the objections of the opponents of euthanasia disappear. What is it?
Is the life of an animal not a gift from God? Or is it a disposable gift to humankind, like a candy we can enjoy and then throw out the wrapper?
Is there no risk of abuse? No possibility that a human would put to sleep an animal out of financial hardship, inability to take care of him, emotional backlash or immaturity, before the animal’s life is truly spent? No fear that humans would euthanize an animal against her will?
Does an animal not have a will? If so, what is it we love, teach, thank, and miss? Not placid rags or automatons. Anyone who’s ever loved an animal knows that animals love back, and you can’t love without a will.
Am I saying we should be euthanizing humans? Make euthanasia legal on a federal level? No, not that either.
I told you, I haven’t made up my mind yet. But I know that most people have made up their minds on euthanasia one way or the other, and this is what I am saying: I propose that, wherever we fall in our convictions on taking lives – in this case, mercy killing – they should be consistent. When we consider putting our cat to sleep, we must ask ourselves: Under the same conditions, would we put to sleep our mother? Or would we keep fighting a bit longer? Or would we sit by her bed for as long as she hangs on to breath, and only then, mourn? And as we are watching our loved ones and strangers decline in desperate suffering toward inevitable death, pleading only with their eyes, or with nothing in absent stare, or in unconsciousness, we must ask ourselves if we are not more merciful toward our pets than our neighbor. Sometimes.