Death with Dignity

Published August 15, 2013

Two dogs who shared my home for 13 years lived a dog’s life and – more to the point – died a dog’s death.

When Corrie and Morag came to live with me as roly-poly Scottish rough-haired collie pups, their glossy fur was as soft as a butterfly’s wing, their noses black and moist, their joy in life boundless. They approached each day assuming it would be perfect — and so it was, no matter what, for years.

Over time their delight in leaping and running and chasing waned. They snoozed a lot. As they descended into canine old age the years bleached their eager curiosity. Their shiny coats faded, their noses, once wet black buttons, became dry and scuffed-looking, while their inflamed and arthritic joints became so sore that only their ever-wagging tails moved with enthusiasm. They still exuded joy, but when each fell gravely ill at the very old collie age of 13, we knew what we had to do.

My husband and I carried them (first Mo and, months later, Corrie) into a veterinarian’s office, laid them on a table and hugged them. They lay calm and trusting as the vet inserted a slim steel needle into a foreleg. Through tears we whispered goodbye. Seconds later their big hearts ceased, they let out an almost inaudible sigh, and they were gone.

They died gently, peacefully, painlessly.

Watching them die, I decided that is how I, too, want to go: when I’m good and ready, if nature doesn’t finish me off cleanly and quickly.

Because I’m a human rather than a beloved dog, though, it’s quite likely I’ll die in suffering. For religious, philosophical or emotional reasons, many in our society are deeply offended by euthanasia. Many others refuse to think, or read about, death at all. But as our society matures, death is increasingly a hot-button issue.

Being the kind of people we Westerners are, so very in control of our lives, careers, even reproductive cycles as none who came before us have ever been, we’re going to demand control over our deaths.

Euthanasia comes from the Greek word eu, meaning well, and thanatos, meaning death. Too often, we moderns do not experience “good deaths.” Too often, many of us linger in a nether world of pain and suffering because, barring a catastrophic event like an accident or a heart attack, our high-tech health care system caters to the primeval urge of every cell in our bodies, every ounce of our being, to fight gamely for survival.

No. Give me that needle. And no, it’s not enough to allow me to refuse life-prolonging medical treatment, as is possible in many jurisdictions. I’ll want a quick, painless exit when the time comes.

Not long ago such a sentiment would be unspeakable in polite company, but times are changing.

In 2001 the Netherlands became the first country to legalize euthanasia, and since then only a handful of jurisdictions have followed suit with variations on legal assisted death, including Belgium, Luxembourg, and Switzerland, and four American states.

But France is leading a renewed global debate: President Francois Hollande vowed in June to make good on an election promise to legalize voluntary euthanasia, despite staunch opposition by religious officials and some ethics experts. The same month, the Canadian province of Quebec introduced a bill, not yet passed, allowing “medically assisted death” in the face of “excessive suffering.” Canada’s federal government is appealing a 2012 ruling by a British Columbia court striking down a national ban on assisted suicide; if upheld by Canada’s top courts, that decision has the potential to change Canadian law.

The politicians trail public opinion: most Western surveys suggest growing support for legalizing some form of conditional euthanasia. More than 70 per cent of respondents to an Australia Institute survey last fall supported euthanasia in cases of unrelievable and incurable suffering. Some 80 per cent of Canadians and 77 per cent of British support doctor-assisted euthanasia “at the request of a competent, fully-informed, terminally ill patient,” pollster Angus Reid reported in 2012. Even in the more-religious United States a majority told a Gallup survey last May they favor allowing doctors to hasten a terminally ill patient’s death – though American support wavered between a marginal 51 and a major 70 per cent, depending on whether the question included the phrases “some painless means,” or “commit suicide.”

Canadian ethicist Arthur Schafer has noted that when doctors hasten the death of a suffering patient (as in fact doctors do, every day of the year), they have to do so in a clandestine manner, or possibly face charges. At the time the Netherlands legalized euthanasia, he said, patients and doctors alike were protected by “openness, accountability and transparency, all of which are likely to diminish the instances of abuse.”

Critics will object that euthanasia is meddling with nature, the will of a god, fate. But we humans *are* meddlesome creatures. Left to nature, without interventions like vaccines and antibiotics and basic public health measures, most of us would expire before middle age.

But others can ponder the philosophical or religious arguments into the wee hours of many, many nights. For my own death, I insist that I, a competent person, be free to choose to have myself euthanized, with medical assistance, in the event of great incurable suffering. It is absurd – no, obscene – for others to insist that, when I’m finished with my own body, I cannot die the good death I choose.

There’s a caveat here: I speak only for myself. Under what conditions, and how we as a society ought to decide about euthanasia on behalf of other people, is an entirely other debate. Deciding when a pet dies, as I have, is a universe away from making such a decision for another human. But when my own time comes I want to follow my dogs out, with a hug from my loved ones and a last peaceful sigh.

Copyright © 2013 Deborah Jones


References and further reading:

Australia Institute poll shows majority support for voluntary euthanasia
Angus Reid survey: Canadians and Britons Would Allow Euthanasia Under Some Conditions
Reuters report on French debate
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation feature on assisted suicide
U.S. Support for Euthanasia Hinges on How It’s Described: Gallup