HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- The old dog was obviously in distress. He had wandered into our barn from the nearby house where he lived, and lay on the floor breathing heavily. He was so shaky on his hind legs he could barely stand.
We knew him, liked him. Knew his owners and liked them. We knew he was about 14 years old, as old as most dogs get.
His prospects didn't seem good, and when we looked him over carefully they seemed a lot worse. Under his fur we found a gaping wound above his backbone. It was festering, rotten and alive with maggots.
My own thoughts turned instantly to euthanasia. If he had been my dog, I might have gone for a firearm, but instead I called his people and soon a veterinarian, who was also a friend of the family, had stopped by.
Together we carried the old boy to a shady spot we could reach with a hose, and began to clean him up.
It seemed pointless. The creepy-crawly maggots, the labored breathing, the blood, the smell -- in the face of all that, I couldn't imagine why the veterinarian persisted. Give him the needle, I wanted to say, and let the poor thing rest.
But I didn't say it, and he didn't do it. Working steadily and rTC gently, he thoroughly flushed the wound, treated it, washed the dog with an antiseptic shampoo, and clipped all the fur from the affected area. By the time he was finished, the patient was more cheerful, and after a week he was recovering well.
On a farm you make a lot of life-and-death decisions, and it's easy to get in the habit of calling for a veterinary Dr. Kevorkian when an animal is in big trouble.
With farm animals, euthanasia isn't only performed for motives of mercy. It also saves time and money. Extended treatment can get expensive. But pulling the plug isn't always the right answer.
My wife doesn't like it when I look for parallels between the human and the animal worlds. Humans are different, she says, and of course she's right. We quite properly view human life as distinct from animal life.
But the way the subject of human euthanasia keeps coming up these days, it reduces that distinction just a bit.
In June, Ernest van den Haag, a retired psychoanalyst, argued in National Review that when viewed solely as a secular concern, laws against suicide and assisted suicide have no philosophical justification and ought to be repealed.
Physicians who decline to assist in the suicides of their patients are imposing their own religious and moral beliefs on those who don't share them, he said. He praised Dr. Jack Kevorian, the much-prosecuted suicide facilitator, as "a rare and courageous exception."
Mr. van den Haag argued that because, "from a secular viewpoint, the moral right to die can hardly be less fundamental than the moral right to live, our non-recognition of the former must flow from unacknowledged residual theological notions which we have officially renounced imposing on non-believers." You could almost hear the American Civil Liberties Union pricking up its ears.
Naturally there was a ruckus. Two pro-life attorneys charged into print with a counterattack culminating in the assertion that "as soon as a society begins acting on the proposition that some people are better off dead," it has started down a very slippery slope.
They didn't address the issue of capital punishment, but cited as one example of the United States' downward slide the practice
of removing life-support systems from comatose
and presumably terminal patients, and as another, proposals to allow healthy organs to be harvested from brain-dead but still-living infants.
To a middle-of-the-road person, unopposed in principle to either of the above practices but still appalled by the idea -- already sanctioned by law in the Netherlands -- of "non-consensual euthanasia," the entire argument seems absolutist and shrill.
More sensible by far is the approach of the retired surgeon Francis D. Moore, as laid out in an essay on medical ethics in his recent memoir, "A Miracle and a Privilege." Because every case is different, he says, patient and physician need freedom to work out practical solutions.
And although it's a tricky and dangerous business for physicians to "help patients safely and painlessly out of this life," it's an aspect of medical care for which there is a need, and it's important for society to talk about it and work out some sort of consensus.
Life-and-death decisions about animals aren't nearly as momentous, of course. But the case of the maggoty old dog was a pretty good reminder that even if you have the right to pull the plug, you don't want to pull it too soon.
Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.