Unnatural selection: How animal euthanasia undermines the case for human euthanasia

By Grace Carroll

Introductory comments

A key argument by euthanasia proponents is that because we have animal euthanasia to alleviate animal suffering, we should therefore have human euthanasia to alleviate human suffering. The apparent simplicity and consistency of this statement appeals to many, but ultimately does not withstand scrutiny.

An interesting sociological study1 by Professor Arnold Arluke on animal euthanasia unpacks the driving assumption behind euthanasia: that a life with ‘suffering’ is not a life worth living. Euthanasia therefore creates a framework for the subjective calculation of the value of life, which overturns the current basis for care. Because of this, euthanasia opens up the possibility for error, prejudice, and malpractice in the delivery of health and end-of-life care which, in turn, undermines the protection of life.

Calculating the value of life

Taking suffering as a starting point leads to a focus on deficiency. The analysis of deficiency takes a number of forms that are not only health related. These may include dependencies, a lack of capability, an inability to participate in certain activities, or circumstances or conditions of living that are, or are perceived to be, detrimental. As one animal worker put it, “there’s always a reason, whether it has been here too long – dogs go cage crazy or suffer kennel stress or we need their cage to make room for incoming animals.”2

For humans, this could also include the feeling of a loss of dignity, a subjective concept that is, again, based on or related to the experience of deficiencies that affect the psychological state of the person.

The logical way to measure these deficiencies is to compare them with other living beings or to compare with the former level of ability that the living being used to have. This comparison is necessarily competitive; that is, comparing one life in relation to other lives takes place within a context where the available resources to satisfy the needs of care are limited.

For example, many shelter animals are killed “because it was not considered economically feasible to treat them even though they had reversible problems and the cost might be substantial.”3 To enable this, workers viewed the animals as having a market value that compared unfavourably to the market value of other shelter animals. As the animal study notes:

Their value was not to be personal and individual from the worker’s perspective. Rather, they were to be assessed in the light of their competitive attractiveness to potential adopters. This view was nowhere more apparent than in the selection of healthy and wellbehaved animals to be euthanised in order to make room for incoming animals.4 As one worker stated: “Sometimes you want to find any reason, like it has a runny nose.”5

In the world of animal euthanasia, suffering does not only apply to the ‘sick and old’ animals – which are known as “automatic kills” – but also to the ‘happy and healthy’; they too potentially have “to be seen as having lives not worth living”.6

In other words, the value of a life is assessed in comparison, and in competition, with other lives and their needs through a number of variables: for example, the number of kennels available and the demand for them, the amount of care required, whether the animal can be successfully treated, or whether there are more deserving cases.

Two results emerge.

The first is a determination to quantify the degree of suffering. This is based on the level and experience of deficiency and the lack of fulfilment of certain conditions, and the prospects of that in relation to other lives within the competitive efficiency-driven marketplace of care.

The second is that the presence of suffering is then linked to a determination of the value of the life.

The value of life is reduced to being ‘conditional’ because certain requirements have to be fulfilled in order for the life to be seen as feasible and therefore worthwhile to continue. These requirements centre on treatability, curability, and a perceived quality of life. When the value of life is relative in the competitive ‘marketplace’ of needs, deficiency is a matter of degree. In the world of animal euthanasia, suffering does not only apply to the ‘sick and old’ animals – which are known as “automatic kills” – but also to the ‘happy and healthy’; they too potentially have “to be seen as having lives not worth living”.6

A zero tolerance approach to suffering While it is often promoted as such, euthanasia is not an approach to suffering that aims to alleviate it (i.e. make less severe). Rather, ISSUE FIFTY-FOUR APRIL 2018 THE NATHANIEL REPORT 11 the aim is to stop it altogether by bringing about the death of the living being. However, one of the lessons we can take from the routine practice of animal euthanasia is that it does not just stop existing suffering, but also extends to preventing ’future’ or ‘anticipated’ suffering. The idea that emerges among those involved in caring for animals is that it is “better to euthanise healthy strays than to let them ‘suffer’ on the streets.”7 Even the potential for adoption does not necessarily prevent euthanasia; “the animal’s future home, if deemed ‘inappropriate’, would only cause the animal more ‘suffering’.”8

Because the aim of euthanasia is to stop suffering, the aim of seeking to prevent it is simply a logical progression that provides a future-proofed approach to suffering; as they say, prevention is better than cure. This is arguably comparable to the common situation of an older person who finds her or himself unable to live in their own home after a decline in capability or an illness or injury causing hospitalisation; the opportunity to live in a rest home is deemed inappropriate because it does not foreseeably provide a good quality of life, or because it could cause more suffering. Like the animal with a potential but ‘inappropriate’ adopter, the older person facing an inappropriate ‘adoptive’ home is offered euthanasia instead.

How could this be? As disability writer Linda Andre states:9 “Because there was no way to know when the suffering might begin, the only way to ensure no suffering was to kill before it began.

Because you needed to act before suffering began, there was no way to avoid cutting off some non-suffering life. Because of euthanasia it was more acceptable to do that than to risk a minute of suffering. Better to end a life three months too early than one hour too late.”

Because the aim of euthanasia is to stop suffering, the aim of seeking to prevent it is simply a logical progression that provides a future-proofed approach to suffering; as they say, prevention is better than cure.

The impact on care

So, what does this mean for care?

The gnarly dilemma of care changes from assessing and managing the complexities of assisting living to determining whether a life should be ended sooner or later. Euthanasia views the value of life comparatively, competitively, and conditionally, and in terms of deficiency. It is not a case of whether death should happen as an intervention, but when. This signals a dangerous divergence from the current approach to care.

In contrast, the current standard of care asserts that suffering and deficiency does not determine the value of life. It rejects the idea that there are lives unworthy of living and that the worth of a life can be based on subjective determinations of value. Instead, its starting point is the idea that every life has an objective value and worth, a stance which protects that life from error, prejudice, and malpractice. Regardless of the circumstances someone finds themselves in, or whoever they are, the primary aim is to care for the person. While professional skills are focused on the alleviation of suffering, typically through a multi-disciplinary approach, the alleviation should not involve the intentional death of a person. Euthanasia also adversely impacts the carer. By learning to see death as a response to suffering, animal workers were able to shift the focus from their feelings to the animals and their feelings. The “workers distracted themselves from their own discomfort when euthanising. Workers tried to make this experience as ‘good’ as possible for the animals and, in doing so, felt better themselves.”10 This shift reduced the negative impact of euthanasia on the worker by refocusing their attention to doing the best possible job of performing the act of euthanasia. In doing so, it frames the worker’s approach to euthanasia in a particular way – as a matter of providing a quality service instead of whether that service should be provided in the first place. It implicitly reinforces an acceptance of euthanasia as an institutional practice and bypasses the need for the agent providing euthanasia to actively examine the morality of what they are doing.

The practice of euthanasia perpetrates a way of working and an approach to life and care that we don’t want. Rather than providing a rationale for human euthanasia, animal euthanasia actually provides a compelling rationale for why human euthanasia should be outright rejected in the name of a caring inclusive society that refuses to judge some lives as unworthy of life.

Grace Carroll is the Communications Manager for the Care Alliance, and has a background in political science, philosophy, and International Relations.


1 Arnold Arluke, “Managing Emotions in an Animal Shelter,” in Animals and Human Society: Changing Perspectives, eds. A. Manning and J. Serpell (London: Routledge, 1994), 145-65.
2 Ibid., 154.
3 Ibid., 150.
4 Ibid., 149.
5 Ibid., 152.
6 Ibid., 152.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 Linda Andre, “Disability Culture meets Euthanasia Culture: Lessons from my cat,” Disability Studies Quarterly 23, no. 3/4 (2003): http://dsq-sds.org/ article/view/435/612. 10 Arluke, 150.