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Does euthanizing animals lead to the devaluing of human life?

Not long ago a study on British veterinarian suicide rates [Bartram, D.J. and Baldwin, D.S., ‘Veterinary surgeons and suicide: influences, opportunities and research directions’, Veterinary Record 162(2): 36-40] received a bit of media attention when it reported that veterinarians in Britain have a suicide mortality rate that is four times that of the general population and more than twice that of other high-risk healthcare professionals such as pharmacists, doctors and dentists []. This is apparently the highest proportion of mortalities due to suicide of any current major occupation. Although access to suicide-facilitating drugs, long working hours, on-call commitments, and high client expectations are undoubtedly factors, they do not appear to explain the 100% higher suicide rate of veterinarians with respect to similar professions that share these characteristics.

One possible explanation of the difference in suicide rates between veterinarians and medical doctors/dentists/pharmacists is that veterinarians are routinely engaging in active euthanasia, and the regularity with which they perform this activity on non-human animals could make this option more salient or less morally verboten as applied to humans (in this case, the self). One of the common worries vis-à-vis active voluntary euthanasia in humans is that it will result in the devaluing of human life in general, causing rates of homicide and suicide to increase. The concern that social practices will lead to a broader ‘devaluing’ of human life with morally undesirable ramifications is a common concern raised in practical ethics, surfacing in debates over not only euthanasia but also abortion, assisted reproductive technologies,  genetic modification, biomedical enhancement of human capacities and capital punishment, to name a few. I have always been extremely sceptical of this claim in each of these contexts, since it is so often issued from the arm chair and without a shred of empirical psychological or sociological support. Nevertheless, the data on veterinary suicide compels us, I think, to take some aspects of this worry seriously. This is not to say that the above finding, if true, implies that active voluntary euthanasia in humans should be proscribed—the dangers it suggests can be (and in my view are)  outweighed by the various rights/goods that numerous ethicists have identified as relevant to the issue. But it does suggest that the ‘devaluing’ concern may turn out to be a real one, and that we may need to take explicit steps to minimize this risk.

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6 Comment on this post

  1. Anthony Drinkwater

    We should perhaps start by being clearer about the terms we use. There is a strange semantic shift going on in this post :

    1. Higher suicide mortality rates are linked by amalgam to homicide. Is there any evidence whatsoever that suggests that vets are more likely to commit homicide ? If so, it is surely worth mentioning. If not, why amalgamate the two ?
    2. Higher suicide mortality rates are linked to « the devaluing of human life ». If the high suicide mortality rate were in fact linked to higher homicide rates, we might have something on which to base this intuition. However, this is not claimed, only asserted.

    A higher suicide mortality rate is equally compatible with a very high valuation of human life, as follows :
    One could very plausibly argue that exposure to the reality of pain-free euthanasia of animals provokes a re-evaluation of the significance of human life, the place of pain, the effects of the loss of autonomy … Could not this lead to the conclusion that mere survival is considered undignified for a human being ? And couldn’t this conviction be based on a very high evaluation of human life ?

  2. Anthony makes good points I think, and I'm also sceptical as to whether this study really provides evidence that euthanasia and other "associated" practices lead to a "devaluing of human life". There is also a confusion I think between two concepts that should be distinguished, namely valuing human life in general and maintaining a taboo against deliberately taking human life (including one's own). One might value life in general but still consider that termination is desirable in specific cases (this is somewhat related to Anthony's last point.

    Nevertheless an interesting and thought-provoking post – I'd be interested to learn more about the study.

  3. Euthanizing animals generally means easely stoping pain or stoping living, with very low moral standarts (in animal experimentation, learning animal classes, animal farms, vet hospitals, etc) The best interest/rights of the animals normally are not seriously taking in consideration. So, if true, the link between "animal euthanizing" and "devaluing human life" is not similar to a link between "human euthanasia" and "devaluing human life" (at least, as defended by moral philosophy). Traditional veterinarian students, vet professors and vet doctors see animals as means to humans means and ends. Probably (hipothese) new animal rights veterinarians – that accept animal right to life and because this do not kill easyly animals (but defend correct euthanasia in certain cases, of course) – will have another view about life in general.

  4. There may be another reason for veterinarians' suicide rate. They have a great affection for animals. After a while, routine killing of animals — especially for reasons other than the animals's being in pain for an unfixable reason — has to have a distressing effect on the veterinarian. For some reasons, animals seem (to me and to many others I know) as more likely to effect affection in humans than do other humans, including babies.

  5. veterinaryperspective

    Hi all, would like to reply to a few of the points that are made in the article and comments.

    My sense as a vet involved in "active euthanasia" is not that it devalues life, but simply makes one exceptionally aware of an easy, painless exit route from life. Perhaps this "devalues" the difficulty or mystery of the transition from life to death (which may be something that isn't worth valuing or making mysterious – I suspect doctors would have a much easier time if the population in general were a bit more "used to" the process of dying, which in the modern developed world tends to be rather hidden). I agree totally with Anthony that to link suicide and homicide does not seem valid although I understand logically Russell's argument. There's no question that if I wanted to be a murderer I could do it effectively and efficiently! But that doesn't make me want to be a murderer. I suppose if you want some painful honesty I occasionally worry about what would happen if my parents or my partner became terminally ill and were begging me to end their lives. I suspect self-preservation would prevent me from performing an illegal act.

    I don't think you can dismiss issues of access so quickly between vets and other professions. Whilst doctors, dentists and farmers may have access to lethal means, there is probably no profession in which the access to a lethal drug (pentobarbitone) is so easy and unregulated. I have a key to the cupboard that our pentobarbitone is kept in, and I don't have to check it out with any other member of staff. I could walk to the cupboard right now and draw up sufficient to kill myself, and my only problem would be being asked which dog it were for. Hospital pharmacies etc are not quite so unrestricted. A farmer may have his gun, but that doesn't quite fulfil the same sense of easy, painless and dignified as a means of suicide.

    It is my belief that the veterinary profession should demonstrate some awareness of this problem and practices should protect their pentobarbitone a little better – requiring two people to be present when it is drawn up for instance. But the profession rejoices in it's unregulated status, and the costs of always having two vets on call for instance are not really compatible with the current model of veterinary practice (however expensive you consider veterinary care to be in general!).

    Dennis, I don't personally find any truth in your suggestion. Euthanasia provides me with job satisfaction – although euthanasing healthy animals for reasons of finance/convenience is something that we do occasionally have to do and still find distressing, the vast vast majority of the time euthanasia is a means to better welfare for the patient, a means to end suffering, and provides me with job satisfaction rather than distress.

    I would love to engage in some further debate/discussion with any of you about this as it's an area I find very interesting.

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