August 18, 2011
On putting down pets and people
By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, August 18, 2011)
On putting down pets and people
In the current Canadian discussion about whether physician-assisted suicide should be legalized for the terminally-ill, an oft-heard argument in favour of legalization is what I call the "we-put-down-pets-so-let's-put-down-people" argument. I think that this argument should be put down.
Let's take a closer look at the argument, then let's assess it.
Here is a version of the argument which I've seen on the Internet (from a comment on the Aug. 3 CBC News article "Should people have the legal right to assisted suicide?"):
"When it comes to an end of life which is filled with pain and suffering, we treat our animals better. No one thinks twice about euthanizing an animal that is in pain and the prognosis is not good. But for a human? Not so much. Who are we keeping them alive for? Surely not themselves. The greatest gift we can give a loved one is a good and decent death with as little suffering as possible."
Here is another version of the argument from the Internet (a comment on the Aug. 3 CBC Radio column "Dr. Brian's Side of the Gurney"):
"I agree with assisted suicide. We have enough compassion on suffering animals to put them down. Why not help a human being end his/her suffering?"
It seems to me that the "we-put-down-pets-so-let's-put-down-people" argument is deeply problematic.
First, it's simply not the case that we treat people more humanely when we put them down when they suffer. The humane, compassionate response to a human being who is suffering pain and his/her prognosis is not good is care—palliative care.
Palliative care is medical care that allows terminally-ill people to die with dignity, with little or no pain, and surrounded by genuinely caring people. Surely, the humane thing to do is provide comfort and pain relief for people who suffer, not take their lives.
Not so incidentally, to describe the deliberate and active killing of a loved one as a "good and decent death" or "the greatest gift"—when good palliative care can be given instead—is, to put it mildly, a dangerous misuse of language (kind of like describing the now-famous theft by British thugs of the contents of an injured man's backpack as "helping" or "lightening his load").
Second, as we think about the "we-put-down-pets-so-let's-put-down-people" argument, we should also be reminded of this fact: withdrawing or withholding extraordinary, burdensome, or medically useless treatment from a terminally ill patient and thereby allowing the patient to die of the illness is already both a legal and ethical part of palliative care—and does not require the legalization of physician-assisted suicide.
We should also remember that there is a treatment called palliative sedation, which can minimize pain as death runs its natural course.
Third, the legal acceptance of physician-assisted suicide—i.e., the deliberate, active killing of a suffering human being—signals the culture's embrace of death as a solution to medical, social, and psychological problems. Call me a defender of some old-fashioned ideals of human civilization, but it seems to me that medical, social, and psychological problems require medical, social, and psychological solutions—not killing.
I strongly suspect that if we had better palliative care (i.e., medical care that allows terminally-ill people to die with dignity, with little or no pain, and surrounded by genuinely caring people), we would also have fewer people calling for physician-assisted suicide.
Maybe instead of calling for a right to physician-assisted suicide, we should be calling for a right to top-notch palliative care? Surely, that would be more humane than putting down a loved one as if he/she were a pet.
(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence University College. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)
P.S. For some of my other arguments against physician-assisted suicide, be sure to check out my other Apologia columns:
Physician-Assisted Suicide: Look at pros AND cons (September 29, 2011)
Physician-Assisted Suicide is a Slippery Slope (December 1, 2011)
ET CETERA (August 13, 2011)