1/16/2013

Heaviness: Euthanasia is Not For the Faint-Hearted

It's all over the internet now, the story of the twin brothers in Belgium who were deaf and going blind and decided not to kill themselves in a joint suicide, but instead to seek legal euthanasia. According to the Daily Mail, they spent two years seeking that permission and were finally able to have their wishes carried out four weeks ago.

These were not assisted suicides. The brothers didn't swallow pills or give themselves an injection. They were euthanized in a manner similar to how pets are: given a lethal injection.

They were not men suffering from a terminal illness. They could have lived many more years, learned how to adjust to the blindness, worked on ways to communicate with each other with their sight gone. And yet, they wanted to die, but not by their own hands.

Not Dead Yet, an organization that I tend to support, has covered this. Stephen Drake is an eloquent, fiercely determined writer and someone I consider to be an ally in the fight for disability rights. So I was interested to read his coverage. He's absolutely correct that this tragic incident, with people from all over the world commenting on the various reports with approval is an odd reaction compared to how we react to soldier suicides or to suicides in general. There is a real disconnect in how people and how animals are valued, as well. Drake brings in euthanasia of pets, and  he links to an earlier piece he co-wrote on the myths of pet euthanasia which has been weighing on me since I read it.

As my friends and regular readers know, my family has lost five pets in the last 18 months because our pets were suffering and the humane choice was to be there, to hold them, to honor them and to euthanize them. These were not choices that were made quickly or easily, contrary to Drake's opining that

If we think about it, probably most of the people we've known have had their pets euthanized when they were neither terminally ill nor suffering. They often involved the increased expense and work that can accompany the chronic conditions aging animals develop. Cats that miss the litter box. Dogs that snap at owners when surprised. Expensive medical treatments. Failing hearing and eyesight. They're slower and less responsive to us.
Animals, who live in the moment, don't spend time dwelling on the "good old days" when they could run like the wind, and mourn the loss. That's a human characteristic -- and something we like to project on our pets so we can tell ourselves and our friends that we had them "put to sleep" because they suffered, avoiding the messier truth.
Perhaps this is true, that some, that many, choose euthanasia for their pets not because of an animal's suffering. But that's not the case in our situation, and there's a part of me that takes umbrage at the charge that euthanasia is done out of expediency or to avoid a "messier truth."

There's nothing expedient about holding a beloved pet and watching him or her die. There's nothing expedient about agonizing over the decision for weeks, months, even years, like we did with Ibit, who had diabetes. No. That decision shouldn't be easy and it shouldn't be expedient. And I doubt it is for people who love their animals.

Are there callous people who put animals down needlessly? Without a doubt, but I'm not sure how much mileage one can get out of being against the euthanasia of pets when we eat, according to PETA, 27 billion animals a year in the US. It seems to me that for consistency sake, if we are against euthanasia for people or for pets for any reason, then logically we must also be against the consumption of animals for sustenance or for any products made from animals.

It may be, though, that Not Dead Yet is simply pointing out the inconsistencies in the pro-assisted-suicide and euthanasia camp, rather than advocating against euthanasia in pets.

I don't know.

Drake and Sobsey's main beef is with the comparison of pet euthanasia to how we let people suffer: "Over the years, we've gotten thoroughly sick and tired of the repeated use of the myths surrounding pet euthanasia as an argument in favor of providing the same 'service' for humans."

They use statistics to show that most animals are not killed because of suffering, but I'm not sure that this is relevant to the argument that euthanasia of animals through the administration of an anesthetic followed by an injection of a medication that will stop the heart is somehow not humane and kinder than watching a human being die a long, protracted, and often painful death. Having seen both--pets peacefully released and hospice patients die natural deaths, especially those that lingered for weeks, well, I can tell you what was certainly easier on the people who loved the dying person or pet.

And maybe that's what it boils down to: ease. We're supposed to be able to relieve suffering, stop the pain, but that doesn't happen for all terminally ill persons, and it certainly doesn't happen for pets, even when the owner does everything he or she can. Sometimes prolonging life is horrendous and horrifying for all involved.

That doesn't mean I'm in favor of euthanasia for human beings. I certainly think that the state-sanctioned euthanasia of these twin brothers was a tragedy that could have been and should have been avoided. With appropriate support and assistance, these men could have lived many more years. And now, their family and the world will never know, nor will they, whether they could have adapted to blindness and lived what they would have considered good lives.

Being disabled is not equivalent with suffering. It isn't. Do some disabilities entail suffering? Yes, I think we can say that's sometimes true, but I'm not sure that suffering is inevitable. Suffering is a state of mind. Two people can have identical disabilities, deal with identical levels of pain and yet, one of them will suffer, while the other will not. Suffering is a specific meaning attached to physical and mental states.

We can rally, work to fight against suffering by creating a society that sees value in every human life, that believes accommodations and acceptance are necessary and mandatory, so that all people may reach their potentials, whatever that potential is.

Euthanasia, assisted suicide, suicide: those things should become an anathema to civilized societies that value human life. Ah, but, and here's the rub: we don't. We don't value human life. We don't believe that everyone deserves to have their basic needs for food, shelter, and work met. We don't believe that children have a right to be safe from mental, physical, or sexual abuse. We don't. Not uniformly and not across the board.

And that's the real problem. We don't value human life equally. Until that issue is resolved, well, there will be tragedies like the twins. There will be people who suffer as they die, and even worse, people who suffer as they live because they are not valued and seen as worthy of basic human compassion.

We can conflate pet euthanasia and the way we treat the terminally ill and the disabled or we can separate them and get to work on what a society that actually valued all human life would look like and then figure out how to build that society.


5 comments:

baimeeker said...

I agree that it is shameful for people to put animals to sleep just because they can't deal with some chronic condition. On the other hand, I disagree with you about assisted suicide for humans. We should try to make a community that supports people with chronic illness, terminal illness, and those with mental or physical disabilities. Families should be there for their loved ones. Doctors should do all they can to help people have a quality of life. But we can't always make someone comfortable. Sometimes people cannot stand to live completely dependent on others. And sometimes we can't take away enough pain at the end of life, or even far from the end of life, to make someone's life anything but torture.

I believe we need to have a conversation in this country about assisted suicide, and I think that the chronically and terminally ill need to have their say. We often have a knee jerk reaction to assisted suicide because we believe human life is sacred. However, we forget that unrelievable suffering may lead to someone not wanting to live anymore.

Anyway, that's my two cents. I really love your blog. I also agree that with more support these brothers may not have made the choice that they did.

K Wombles said...

I didn't actually state what I felt we should do regarding assisted suicide--I said that those things SHOULD be anathema to a civilized society that values all human life and that we're not there.

I want to maintain my right to choose to end my life if I have a terminal illness and I know that existing medications cannot keep me comfortable. I think all people should have that right. I think that assisted suicide (in the sense that prescriptions are provided to allow a peaceful end to a life) has a place in our current society.

I think one of our greatest problems is an inability to discuss the most important topics in a calm, rational manner that doesn't polarize positions nor set people up as enemies for having differing ideas. This is a conversation that really must be had. We need, individually, to devote time, effort, energy to the big questions of our lives and what it means to be human, what it means to value life, and who gets to decide how resources are allocated.

Let's hope that this can happen, and happen soon. :)

baimeeker said...

Looks like I misinterpreted you... Sorry about that. I totally agree with everything you've said here. :)

As for rational conversation about assisted suicide, soon would be good. But I'm not holding my breath.

melbo said...

You and I are in agreement on this as you know. As always you manage to articulate the nuances in the topic which some other commentators appear to struggle with.

There is a middle ground on this. It is not one thing or the other. We should be able to have a reasoned and informed discussion of this issue and we should start now. But I sense that it is going to be difficult for many because most people are very uncomfortable talking about death. We have to get over that.

Thank you for writing this - it's great as usual.

Phil Dzialo said...

I sincerely believe there is a significant difference between a "good death" and a "bad death." Humans who are terminally ill can decide that intractable, unrelenting suffering is a "bad death" and hence I support the Death with Dignity initiatives. Pets also should not suffer a "bad death"; their adults companions assist assist in humane "good deaths". In either case, compassion rules. Sorry, I am no fan of NDY...