Defining “Euthanasia” For Animals
In human terms, euthanasia is discussed during times where all options have been exhausted in terms of extending someone’s life, or maintaining a decent quality of life. Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines euthanasia as the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals (such as persons or domestic animals) in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy. Euthanasia is typically synonymous with “good” and “painless.” We do not use the word killing when discussing euthanasia, as killing is typically used to describe something more along the lines of murder.
However, if we liberally mix and match words like “killing” and “euthanasia,” our conversations would be subject to deception and inaccuracies of intent. A dictator in a genocidal war could simply claim that they euthanized individuals, rather than killed them, in an effort to dismiss a horrid reality of events. Similarly, how we define nonhuman animal euthanasia may have tremendous consequences as to how we discuss, and potentially normalize, the subject itself.
In this paper, the author makes the case for adopting a strict definition for nonhuman animal euthanasia. There is currently no working definition; possibly due to the general assumption that our human definition of the word should tangentially apply. The author lays out their definition as follows:
(1) The nonhuman animal’s death must be intended by at least one moral agent, where the latter is either the cause of death or a causally relevant feature of the event resulting in death (whether by action or omission).
The main point in the first condition being intentionality versus an accidental death.
(2) There must be sufficient current evidence for the moral agent to believe that the nonhuman animal is acutely suffering or comatose, and that this condition is irreversible or that any available treatment would be too painful compared to the quantity and quality of life that the nonhuman animal is expected to gain from it.
The second condition’s main prerogative is to ensure that there is sufficient evidence, as decisions made in ignorance or with insufficient evidence may describe a well-intentioned death but not euthanasia, specifically.
(3) The moral agent’s primary reason for intending the nonhuman animal’s death must be cessation of the nonhuman animal’s condition of acute suffering or irreversible comatoseness, where the moral agent does not intend the nonhuman animal’s death for a different primary reason, even though there may be other relevant reasons.
The third condition is placed to ensure that the moral agent is acting in response to the nonhuman animal’s suffering, rather than alternative reasons having to do with the moral agent’s suffering (financial costs and their related suffering) or other reasons given by external parties.
(4) a. There must be sufficient current evidence for the moral agent to believe that the causal means to the nonhuman animal’s death will not produce any more suffering than would be produced for the nonhuman animal if the moral agent were not to intervene.
Remaining true to the reason for prescribing euthanasia in the first place, this fourth subcondition ensures that the death can be descibed as something along the lines of the painlessness that we attribute to human euthanasia or…
(4) b. The causal means to the event of the nonhuman animal’s death are chosen by the moral agent to be as painless as possible, unless there is an overriding reason for a more painful causal means, where the reason for choosing the latter causal means does not conflict with the evidence in (4a).
Meaning, the euthanized death is estimated and intended to be less painful than the predicted remaining quality of life.
(5) The nonhuman animal’s condition of acute suffering or irreversible comatoseness must not be the immediate outcome of the way they were treated by the moral agents (directly or indirectly) involved in the termination of their life.
Lastly, the moral agent or associated party should not be complicit in the events that led to the consideration of euthanizing the nonhuman animal. In the case of humans, a deranged doctor that abused a patient and placed them into a coma cannot then justifiably describe the act of painlessly killing the patient as euthanasia. Similarly, guardians that have confined a pet to a small cage for the entirety of its life cannot then describe the act of painlessly killing them as euthanasia. These examples can more be described as something such as merciful killing rather than euthanasia.
This brings us to the author’s biggest critiques of the use of the term, the first being that, when all the above conditions are considered we are left with little to no cases where non-human animal euthanasia would be an appropriate description for the cause of death, especially when considering that condition five could be interpreted as any athroprogenic harm (breeding, etc.) that contributed to the immediate cause of death could render it not euthanasia. While the author admits this, they also admit that the conditions allow an interpretation that sees non-human animal euthanasia as simply occurring as often as human euthanasia does (not often, relatively) while also allowing for a more abolitionist perspective that may interpret these conditions to only prescribe euthanasia for wounded free-living animals or rescued animals. In any case, the author describes the conditions as agnostic as to whether or not more or less non-human animal deaths are labeled as occurring via euthanasia.
Indeed, the definition and discussion of non-human animal euthanasia seem like a relatively untouched territory of science and philosophy, as the author found little to no mentions in their literature review. As such, it seems possible that thousands of non-human animal deaths are being labeled as euthanasia out of ignorance or misdirection at best, or are manufacturing consent by way of using a word “euthanasia” that connotates an innocent, altruistic, or pleasent death. Whether or not society adopts these conditions as a newfound definition for non-human animals, the outcome of seriously considering this definition, and associated discussions, is surely an important step.