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22 February 2010

Suffering and Euthanasia


William Stoddard recently defended the practice of euthanasia on this NoodleFood thread. Most poignant was this comment:

A few weeks ago, our older cat's kidneys stopped working. She was 18 years old, had recovered fully from breast cancer through surgery and chemo, and had later been diagnoses with stomach cancer and given an estimated lifespan in months . . . three years before. She stopped eating and started losing weight; I made a vet appointment; and the night before I took her in, she started repeatedly drinking a lot and then immediately urinating (on the bathroom tile, which is why we knew it was repeated). The vets diagnosed her and told us that we might be able to prolong her life by hydrating her; I asked them to do it, so we could bring her home and observe her . . . and only hours after we had her home, we called back and made the appointment to have her euthanized. I don't want to go into details; let's just say that she was debilitated, uncomfortable, and rapidly losing body weight.

We both cried buckets as she died . . . but I hadn't a moment's doubt that it was the right thing to do for her. Nothing we could do would actually give her LIFE; all we could do was prolong her dying, and the suffering that went with it. Instead, we let her go, and she was still able to lift her head at the last, and respond when we petted her the last time. And I say that euthanizing her was an act of love, and that we never felt our love for her more, or acted on it with more integrity, than in those last moments.

Of course, a human being's death is different. A cat isn't a conceptual being, doesn't understand that it's mortal, and doesn't fear the shortening of its life; it only know its present suffering, and so ending that is an unmixed good. But I think it can be good for a human being, too, if continued existence is no more than a burden and a torment; because that makes the prospect of longer life not a good but a bad. There are circumstances under which I would choose to end my life; and I wish it were legal for my girlfriend to have that done for me, or I for her, if we are in those circumstances and helpless to end our own lives.

I don't think changing attitudes on this are a product of relativism. When I was a child in the 1950s, medicine was not far past being helpless to prolong the lives of the old and chronically ill; doctors still acted on the assumption that saving life was always a good thing, and families still expected them to. But now an entire generation has seen what that prolongation of life can mean, and has said, "Not for me."

Of course there need to be legal safeguards on this decision. But sometimes it's the right one to make.

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