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Only Humans Should Suffer: The End-of-Life Double Standard

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On Monday, here in Philadelphia, Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro was euthanized after an eight-month battle with complications from a leg injury he had suffered at the Preakness.

Philadelphia mourns. And apparently the world mourns, too, as the news of this beloved horse's death has reached newspapers and TV sets around the nation and beyond.

With his Kentucky Derby win, Barbaro became no less a Philly sports hero than Eagle Donovan McNabb. But there's one big difference: If a football player (or your uncle Joe) were to suffer a terminal injury that left him dying a slow death in constant excruciating pain that even modern medicine could not control, he would just have to suffer.

As of this writing, Oregon is the only state in the U.S. that allows physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients in pain who want to die with dignity on their own terms. Efforts to pass similar legislation in other states have failed, due in no small part to challenges by those who confuse a "culture of life" with a culture of forced suffering.

In reality, despite concerns by opponents of the Oregon law who feared that it would lead to a widespread rush to die, only 246 terminally ill patients used the law to end their lives from the time the law was implemented in 1998 through the end of 2005. That's an average of about one in 1,000 deaths in that state during that timeframe. These patients found a quick, painless, and certain end to their intolerable suffering, and were spared weeks or months of agony. And their families were spared the anguish of watching their loved ones suffer a painful and prolonged death.

In addition to Oregon, physician-assisted suicide is currently legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Switzerland. Everywhere else, the terminally ill are forced to endure sometimes horrific pain at the end of life, or end their misery with a plastic bag, a noose, or some other undignified means. And those sad, desperate acts will continue as long as so-called "pro-life" factions keep fighting attempts to widen the acceptance of physician-assisted suicide and provide more people with the power to choose a comfortable death over a horrible, lingering, painful one.

What it boils down to is this: While life is precious and should not be thrown away lightly, modern medical science cannot yet provide adequate pain control in all dying patients, even in the best hospices.

While physicians do take an oath to "do no harm", is it not harmful to force a dying patient to suffer a slow, lingering death against his or her will, perhaps kept alive artificially with respirators and feeding tubes?

When a pet (or a racehorse) becomes ill to the point where it is near death or suffering uncontrollably, a veterinarian will not think twice before recommending that the animal be euthanized, to put it out of its misery. In our society, this is regarded as the kind thing to do.

So why do we treat our dying animals with more mercy than we give our dying people?

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Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views (more...)
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