If pets can be put to sleep, why not people also?

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According to Packaged Facts, the pet industry was $55 billion strong in 2010. To put this amount in perspective, the Colorado state budget in 2009 was $18.9 billion.

We spend a lot of money on our pets, whether it is food and food supplements, grooming, toys, and of course veterinary care.

Dogs and cats are X-rayed and scanned, operated on for fractures, and treated for cancer, and when all else fails, they are put to sleep. Pet owners are vigilant, for the most part, about their pets’ health care, and there are some federal and state laws protecting animals (the latest case of horse neglect and abuse).

So, how is it that animal-lovers who spend billions of dollars to care for them so lovingly, find it appropriate, under the right circumstances to “put them to sleep?”

This euphemism is in fact an admission that the kind of pain and suffering afflicted on animals is in fact a cruel and unusual punishment that deserves to be averted with kind and painless death in the hands of a veterinarian. Much sadness ensues, grief, and mourning, but the active act of euthanasia is considered humane, and no veterinarian, or owner, would be accused of murder.

The fact that we treat animals well in their last days of the lives and are willing to be compassionate about their suffering came to mind when reading about the death of Dr. Jack Kevorkian of natural causes.

The infamous “Dr. Death,” Jack Kevorkian, was renowned, spending 8 years in jail, for what is labeled assisted suicide. Some call it active euthanasia — where one actively ends one’s life, as opposed to passive euthanasia — where one stops eating, for example, or medical intervention.

The question on which the Michigan authorities focused was the fact that the good doctor pressed the button that ended a patient’s life, rather than the patient herself doing so. It’s about who pushes the button!

Now, we can all appreciate that this is a subtle distinction worthy of the best legal minds: we don’t want to condone pushing of buttons — or triggers — that hasten one’s death; it’s murder.

But in the legal morass, some other issues were lost. Why not be allowed to end one’s terminal illness and great pain and suffering?

Our own former governor, Richard Lamm, was chided when in 1984 he made some comments in support of physician-assisted suicide. For him, this was primarily an economic argument. Given limited resources for health care, wouldn’t it be more prudent to spend money on the young than on the old?

Some claim that Americans spend on average more money in the last year of their lives than they do on their entire life. Does it make sense to keep grandpa alive another month, deplete his life-long savings and saddle Medicare or Medicaid with bills that add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars?

Physicians are likely to recommend surgery, as they did for my 94-year old mother two months before her death. Surgery could have extended her life by a couple of months, but the pain and the risk involving such a surgery on an old woman, a woman who had a full and exciting life, seemed out of place. My brother and I with consultation from our sister and other brother agreed not to pursue surgery.

My mother asked if this surgery could cure her. I was candid in saying to her that it might, but that it might also kill her in the process. She agreed to pass, and died in her own bed, peacefully, two months later.

There is, of course, a difference between humans and their pets, and the main difference cited by experts is our self-consciousness, not simply our advanced brain-power.

But, should animals enjoy a more humane end of life? Why can’t we be put to sleep? It’s exactly what my mother wanted, and she asked me on numerous occasions to help her die if she were to suffer with a terminal disease.

She would have welcomed Dr. Kevorkian to her home, and thanked him for helping her avoid the pain associated with a protracted incurable disease. Instead, she was prescribed morphine, which, as the doses increased, eventually killed her.

Are we really that callous that we treat dogs better than people? Have we no respect for fulfilling people’s wishes, even when they want to die? This is where paternalism — I know what’s good for you better than you know it yourself — meets free will and personal liberty.

Some states, like Oregon, are more hospitable to the notion of physician-assisted death; some are more concerned about the slippery slope of allowing others to participate in what may amount to killing. Perhaps our concern is more religious than legal, after all: God created humans in His image, and therefore only He can take life.

The sacredness of human life is understandable, even socially necessary. The Jews claim that to save one life is equivalent to saving the entire universe. Christians extend the notion to a complete objection of abortion. But in the meantime, we have extended life expectancy from the biblical past to a level unimaginable only a couple of centuries ago. Is it our quest for immortality that keeps us going to have yet another procedure when we are in our eighties? Is it our sense that the world will stop without us?

We’d hate to make life and death decisions based on economic considerations alone, just as it may be odd to do a cost-benefit analysis when weighing on health treatment.

But being reasonable about our health prospects and allowing ourselves to die with dignity should be considered, too. Perhaps the quality of life rather than its quantity is what veterinarians think about, just like the late Dr. Death.

It is just as compassionate to let a loved one die, whether human or a pet, as to allow medical intrusion to dictate what to do next.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. His father passed away 25 years ago and his mother five years ago. He has no pets.