Heaviness: Euthanasia For Expediency
    By Kim Wombles | January 16th 2013 09:12 AM | 9 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    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.


    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. 
    I don't support government-mandated euthanasia, like the British use in their 'death pathway', but we have two people who already can't communicate via voice with the only real friends they have - each other, their twin - and now they won't even be able to see each other. They felt like they were just wards of the state and had no prospect for enjoying life, so foisting off our cultural belief on them to endure and live miserably is no different than mandating they die.
    But would they have been miserable? We don't know that. We know they felt they would be, but as Daniel Gilbert's research has borne out, we are bad at predicting how we will react and adjust to future events. Really, really bad at it. 
    So, government-mandated, government-sponsored and government-supported euthanasia are not likely to work well, in the first place. Bureaucracies shouldn't be involved in personal life and death decisions. And doctors shouldn't be actively killing human beings. 

    I never said that life should be preserved regardless of the quality of life, but that we should feel obligated to create a society that reduces suffering and offers sufficient support that individuals don't feel that death is the only option that is viable.
    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.
    But would they have been miserable? We don't know that. We know they felt they would be
    I think you need to recalibrate what you think 'misery' means, if what they feel is not it.  :)

    It clearly was not a snap decision so they had plenty of time to know if they would be miserable or not. Artificially mandating a metric for 'quality of life' and a 'misery index' determined by a panel of survey-taking psychologists doesn't seem like a great idea.

    They would rather not live without each other in some meaningful way and they did it legally and opened up a public debate about quality of life rather than making a mess of things and having a big debate about mental health funding, which clearly was not a factor. They were entirely rational.
    Gerhard Adam
    Unfortunately the primary problem is that everything on the topics of euthanasia and suicide are from the perspective of others.  It is their values and assessments that dominate the conversation which invariably conclude that anyone that disagrees must be irrational.

    Regardless of what we may individually think, the choice to stop living is so fundamental, that it is inconceivable that anyone might try and rationalize a requirement that people "must live".  We are under no obligation to live up to other's expectations, as if somehow making such a choice requires justification beyond our own ability to make such a decision.

    This is precisely why it is important we discuss suicide and we afford an opportunity for people to discuss such choices openly and freely.  We can certainly try and help people make alternative decisions and to consider all the ramifications.  However, in the end, it is their choice and most be respected as such.

    Regarding pet euthanasia; the quoted comments are simply nonsense.  Suffering isn't necessarily the only criteria, but generally is the primary consideration for people making such a choice.  Even the economic argument is applicable, since this is also relevant to pets and humans.  Despite the stories we try to tell ourselves, there are not unlimited resources available to save everyone.  Such choices are not made lesser because someone thinks resources are unbounded.  That is the foolish position.

    We will all die.  If there were exceptions to this, then some of the arguments might be more pertinent.  However, since there are no exceptions, then it is presumptuous for anyone to suggest that anyone other than the individual involved should be allowed the choice of when this is to occur.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thank you. I agree completely with your last sentence. I noted what a felt civilized society SHOULD do-we are not there--we do value all life, nor do we respect, on the whole, an individual's right to choose a death at one's own terms and time. It's not that I have a problem with individuals choosing when to end their life. I, for one, want the right to choose how I will do and when if and when I am faced with a terminal illness. I don't want, though, the state to intrude and insist that such a death must be done by medical professionals in a hospital setting. Nor do I think I should be required to get governmental consent.
    But...there are things we do not know about the specific case regarding the twins. One news article specifically said they were unable to communicate with anyone other than themselves and close family members. 

    I'm not suggesting their decision wasn't theirs to make, but that when we are so often wrong about we how we will feel about something in the future, doesn't it make sense to not make irrevocable  decisions until we're really there?

    I also agree that economic decisions do play a role in not just pet medical care, but for our own health care. When resources are limited and outcome is certain, then weighing the economic costs are reasonable, especially when prolonged care also brings about prolonged suffering (not just for the animal or the person, but for those caring for the animal or person).

    We absolutely need to be able to discuss suicide rationally, and perhaps we need a term that separates rational, situational-based end-of-life decisions from those suicides that result from depression and other mental illness.
    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.
    Heaviness — that word describes the impact of this event precisely.

    Here is some Eucalyptus bark I photographed recently, while on a walk in the garden of our university campus.

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Lovely photo, Robert. Thank you for sharing it.
    The whole topic of euthanasia and its related cousins, assisted-suicide and rational end-of-life decisions, weigh on me, and I suspect always will-and they should. Helping families of hospice patients and the patients is an honor, but it's deep and heavy and leaves an ache that doesn't ever go away, which, I think, is the way life is supposed to affect a person: so that we learn how to carry the heaviness and still find joy, to take increased appreciation for life and all it has to offer because we do carry that heaviness with us. Finding beauty in nature is one of those lightnesses that balance the heaviness.
    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.
    This article lacked one hugely important perspective. That of personal choice or self-determination.

    What does it matter whether society believes they had productive potential, or that they could have adapted to their suffering, or grown to appreciate their unique positions in the grand scheme of things? What does it matter that they might have been wrong - they will never know, and they are/were their own persons?

    Also, suffering by your own admission is subjective. Therefore you can make no determination on their behalf as to whether their particular suffering was endurable or not. It seems unusually cruel to tell someone they must suffer because society thinks their condition is not that bad, and might improve.

    Lets take your example of to people with the same disability and go a step further. What if one had been disabled from birth, while the other had live 25 years of highly active life prior to acquiring the disability. Mightn't the later suffer greatly while the former rejoices in life, though they have the same malady?

    My point is the whole tone of this is parental where no parental authority exists. And while I do not believe the State should pay for assisted suicide, I believe they shouldn't bar it, but should lend it oversight, as they might with surgeries and other medical treatments - for the sake of propriety.

    A person seeking the end to their suffering should not have to resort to violent, painful ways of doing it, or risk a grizzly failure and additional suffering, just to preserve society's conscience. This, for the same reason we legalize medical abortion, so people do not feel they have to resort to back-alley procedures in unsanitary and dubious circumstances.

    You should examine your both your motives and your morality and then keep it to yourself.

    There is a huge difference between assisted suicide and euthanasia. There is a huge difference in end-of-life decisions and euthanasia. 
    And if you'd really read the piece, you might have caught on that I'm not against people making their own end-of-life decisions and having access to legal medications to make that a painless death.

    Yeah, if you think I need to "keep it" to myself, perhaps you should have held yourself to the same standards.

    You reacted knee-jerk, and then used the false dilemma of either the state allows euthanasia or people are going to be in back alleys trying to kill themselves. There's such a massive range of options between those two that allow dying to occur with dignity.

    My overriding point is that we should be able to create a society that is accommodating of disabilities and differences and sees all human life as having value and deserving of having basic needs met. We don't have that. As Stephen Drake in his post asks, why is it that people are applauding the euthanasia of these disabled twins while on articles over suicides being the cause of more deaths in the military than combat people are horrified and saddened? Why? Because the soldiers' lives are seen as having more value.
    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.