Ethicist addresses making euthanasia decisions in a no-kill context

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  October 2013: (Actually published on November 20,  2013.)

BARCELONA–– Among the more unusual and useful offerings at the 2013 International Companion Animal Welfare Conference was a session entitled “Ethical decision making,”  presented by Dorothy E.F. McKeegan,  British Veterinary Association Animal Welfare Foundation senior lecturer at the University of Glasgow.

The session was unusual because it focused on making the decision to euthanize a dog at a no-kill shelter;  useful because the problems that McKeegan confronted are at once difficult,  often encountered,  and yet seldom forthrightly raised at animal welfare training conferences,  due to the political and emotional overtones that tend to enter any discussion of euthanasia.

Conferences hosted by traditional animal welfare organizations have often included diagnostic evaluation of health and behavioral reasons that may require euthanasia,  technical instruction on how to perform euthanasia with minimal stress for the animal,  and counselling for coping with the psychological effects of killing animals.  Yet at the point of making a euthanasia decision,  shelter personnel have typically been left with simplistic dichotomies,  such as maintaining a uniform “no kill” policy versus accepting wholesale the arguments offered by the late Phyllis Wright in her 1967 essay “Why We Must Euthanize.”  

Philosophy first

Acknowledging that there may be other equally valid philosophical frameworks for making euthanasia decisions,  McKeegan led the ICAWC audience through a model apparently based mostly on the utilitarian arguments of Animal Liberation author Peter Singer,  who has also written extensively about euthanasia for incurably ill and painfully suffering human beings. For McKeegan,  the choice to euthanize begins long before contemplating the condition of an individual animal.  To be resolved first,  as the context for making ethically consistment decisions,  are such questions as whether animals have moral standing,  what interests animals have in life,  what human actions toward animals are acceptable or unacceptable,  and whether administering a painless death to an animal constitutes doing harm. “For most of us,”  McKeegan said,  “the conscious mental experiences of animals lie at the heart of our concern for their welfare.  The capacity to feel pleasure and suffering is the basis of moral status.  If animals have a mental life and feelings,  if they can feel pain,  then interests flow from these feelings,  such as the interest in avoiding pain.  Others,”  if behaving ethically,  “are obliged to respect such interests.” Animal interests,  McKeegan outlined,  include quality of life issues such as alleviating hunger and thirst;  fear and distress;  pain,  injury,  and disease;  discomfort;  and behavioral restriction.  Animals have further interests in pursuing pleasure,  play,  happiness,  and the activities specific to their species. “Animals also have quantity of life interests,”  McKeegan continued,  “with a shortened life normally considered a bad thing compared to an extended life.  Can and should we prioritise these interests?  I would argue that we can and that quality of life is the most important.  This is reflected in animal welfare legislation which only covers quality of life.  However,  there is lots of evidence that people do value quantity of animal life,  such as support for moral vegetarianism,  the popularity of animal rehoming centers,  and the desire for heroic treatments for companion animals” who might otherwise not survive. “Do animals matter as much as humans?” McKeegan asked. Instead of offering a single simple answer,  McKeegan presented two common perspectives in animal advocacy and shelter work. One is that “Animals deserve equal consideration.  For example,  a cat’s suffering matters as much as a human’s suffering.” The other is what McKeegan termed a “sliding scale,”  whereby “Humans deserve full,  equal consideration,”  relative to each other,  “but other animals deserve consideration in proportion to their cognitive,  emotional,  and social complexity.  For example,”  from this point of view,   “a monkey’s suffering matters less than a human’s suffering,  but more than a rat’s suffering.” Noted McKeegan,  “Sentience does not always relate to moral status––context is important.”  A mouse may be considered either vermin,  with no moral status;  as a laboratory animal,  with value for the value the mouse has to humans;  or as a pet,  whose life has intrinsic value. “People rate animals as morally more or less important,  and therefore more or less worth protecting,  according to factors including how useful the animal is,  how closely one collaborates with the individual animal,  how cute and cuddly the animal is,  how harmful the animal can be,  and how ‘demonic’ it is perceived to be (including historically).  Use of these criteria as a basis for animal protection can be criticized on both scientific and ethical grounds,”  McKeegan acknowledged,  but societal values must be recognized nonetheless. The three major ethical frameworks governing the animal/human relationship,  McKeegan explained,  are contractarian,  utilitarian,  and “animal rights.”  Contractarians hold that “Only humans are morally relevant;   animals have no moral status so do not create moral duties.”  Utilitarians believe that “animals deserve equal moral consideration,”  and that therefore “in deciding what to do,  we must consider welfare consequences for animals as well as potential benefits,  and try to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number.”  The animal rights framework,  McKeegan continued,  applies fixed ethical rules to human treatment of animals,  holding that individual rights cannot be violated to benefit others.  

“Hybrid views”

“Most of us hold hybrid views containing elements of each framework,”  McKeegan said.  “This may also depend on context.” Most people accept,  to varying extent,  killing animals for food,  pest control,  and research.  Many accept some forms of hunting,  if not all.  But acceptance of other reasons for killing animals does not always coincide with accepting euthanasia of companion animals While there is wide agreement that animals’ quality of life is important,  McKeegan pointed out,  and quality of life considerations are enshrined in law,  there is no legal protection of an animal’s right to longevity.  As to whether death is a harm,  McKeegan said,  “Death,”  as a state of being,  “is distinct from dying,  which may involve suffering.  Death itself precludes all experiences,  positive or negative.  Death is ordinarily considered to harm humans.  But does a painless death harm animals? Arguments that administering a painless death does not constitute harming animals include the view that “Our only duty to animals is to ensure they live good lives, as long as those lives last,”  that “Animals cannot perceive or anticipate death,”  that “Animals don’t have long term plans,  hopes or desires that can be thwarted by death,”  and that “Animals are replaceable in a way that humans are not.” Contrary arguments are that “Death forecloses valuable opportunities that continued life would give,”   McKeegan continued,  noting that this implies greater harm is done by killing younger animals.  “Animals have a strong moral claim to continued life,  regardless of their ability to perceive death.” In addition,  McKeegan said,  “If animals are thought of as replaceable,  this may negatively affect the way they are treated.” The British Veterinary Association,  McKeegan pointed out,   distinguishes among “Absolutely justified euthanasia,”  when there is no better option for the animal;  “Contextually justified euthanasia,”  when “There is at least one better option,  but the circumstances are such that it could not be taken,”  leaving euthanasia as the best available option;  and “Non-justified euthanasia,”  when better alternatives are available.  

Real-life case

With the context for making euthanasia decisions established,  McKeegan proceeded to reviewing an actual case in which she advised Dogs Trust.  The subject, Jasper,  was a four-year-old male Staffordshire bull terrier,   at the shelter for seven months,  friendly toward adult humans but “very aggressive towards other dogs,”  McKeegan recalled.  “After many appeals,  finally a man put in a request to rehome Jasper.  A single man in his thirties,  the man had previous experience with Staffordshire terriers.  He also had a six-year-old daughter,  who did not live with him but often visited. “A meeting was arranged between Jasper and the daughter and it did not go well,”  McKeegan recounted.  “Jasper showed very obvious signs of aggression.  It was clear that the adoption could not go ahead.” Arguments for euthanizing Jasper included that Jasper presented a danger to children and other dogs;  a painless death would not harm Jasper;  Jasper’s quality of life in kennels might be suboptimal;  Jasper occupied space at Dogs Trust that could have been occupied by another dog with a better chance to be rehomed;  and the shelter’s reputation for safety needed to be protected. Arguments against euthanizing Jasper included that he had a right to life,  was young and healthy,  and could perhaps eventually be rehomed and have a good life with someone.  A veterinarian would have to do the unpleasant work of euthanasia.  The kennel staff were very attached to Jasper.   And Dogs Trust’s reputation as a no-kill shelter needed to be protected Of the arguments for euthanasia,  one represented a societal interest,  two represented interests of concern to Jasper,  and two represented interests of Dogs Trust. Of the arguments against euthanasia,  three represented interests of the animal,  two represented interests of Dogs Trust,  and one represented the interest of the veterinarian in not wanting to kill a healthy dog. “These influences provide arguments on both sides and some are probably more important than others,”  McKeegan continued.  To make a decision,  “We need to weight the influences, or at least identify the most important ones.” Assigning each factor a numerical weight,  on a scale of one-to-ten,  Dogs Trust added up the scores.  The scores tipped against Jasper,  26-22.  Jasper was euthanized. McKeegan advised shelter directors to prepare their euthanasia criteria in advance. “Ethical reasoning is a skill which can be practiced and improved,”  McKeegan concluded.  “Reasoning through ethical decisions eliminates guilt,  resulting in better decisions and happier decision makers.  It generates justifications and arguments which can be discussed with others.  But some ethically problematic outcomes are beyond your control,”  McKeegan advised.  “You can only choose from available options.”

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