Barbara Kay: Euthanize your dog, if you like. But hands off me


National Post - Wednesday June 25th, 2014

Colleen De Neve/Postmedia News

Quebec’s euthanasia law, Bill C-52, has now passed. My side lost that battle. Did we lose “fair and square” though? I personally felt that the rhetorical quality of public discussion leading up to its passage was low, with the pro-euthanasia side dominated by emotive narratives of heartbreaking, but near-uniquely hard cases, pundits’ personal fears and a narrow understanding of the word “compassion.”

One predictable, and supposedly airtight argument I met with frequently, and which I always found particularly irksome, goes like this: “We euthanize our pets when they are suffering. Why do we have more compassion for animals than we have for our fellow humans?”

I saw many variations on this theme in responses to my columns on euthanasia, in letters to the editor and on discussion boards. In a 2011 article in the journal Psychology Today, “Human and Animal Euthanasia: Dare we compare?” veterinarian Jessica Pierce says many clients tell her, “There should be a way out. If we can do this for our pets, why can’t we show the same compassion for our human loved ones?” And from a dedicated pro-euthanasia website: “Most people would have their pets put down if they were suffering — this would be regarded as kindness. Why can’t the same kindness be given to humans?” And just the other day, in a group email discussion amongst friends, a highly educated peer (a law school professor in fact) posed essentially the same question.

The answer is that if we applied human standards of compassion in all things to our treatment of animals, our willingness to euthanize them when they are suffering would be “compassion’s” exception, not the rule.

Sure, we euthanize animals when their lives are a burden to them (and us). We also line-breed them when we want more of them, neuter them when we want fewer of them, give them away when our children develop allergies to them, control what and how much they eat, when and where they sleep, and when they may go outside to relieve themselves. Those in our care who do have sex with others of their species only do so when we permit it, infrequently and only for breeding purposes. We separate them from their biological families to make them members of our own.

Is all that compassionate? Not if they were human. But they’re not human, you see, so there’s nothing unethical in any of those actions.

Animals do not think about the “meaning” of their lives. They do not contemplate their own deaths when they are healthy. They generally do not become “suicidal” — nor are they competent to understand the term — no matter how much they are suffering. Most of them are not self-aware (and the ones that are — elephants, gorillas — are not pets). They do not compare themselves to others of their species, or feel it is unjust that they are suffering while other animals are healthy. With few exceptions, they do not attach either a cost or a benefit to the death of any other animal. They do not look up at their kindly veterinarians and wonder if he or she is the one who will end their lives.

People do all these things, which is why we ascribed so much importance to this decision. And therefore cherrypicking one feature of the human-animal relationship by euthanasia advocates — one that happens to dovetail with a desired but momentous change to the human-human relationship — should not be rhetorically admissible as a standard against which to judge our treatment of fellow humans.

I expect many animal owners will consider my views a sign of disdain for the love they feel for their pets. On the contrary. My family has always had dogs, and we have had them put down when their joy in life was over — with sadness but not guilt — and mourned their passing. So fierce love for pets is something I understand and respect. I just don’t think legal euthanasia should ever have become a contested site to be won by whoever could prove themselves to be most loving and compassionate. There’s something about animals linked to this topic that invites such contests.

Although I join sympathetically with those who say, “I wish it were as simple a decision for human suffering as it is for our animals,” I consider any attempt to bind our compassion for animals to an endorsement of human euthanasia sentimental kitsch, and heartily wish such species relativism were absent from the debate.

National Post
bkay@videotron.ca