Thursday, 19 September 2013

Is Stephen Hawking an animal?

I consider myself fortunate on occasion to talk to young people about the issue of euthanasia & assisted suicide. It's rare to find a young person who is ideologically fixed in favour and far more common to read on their faces genuine intent to grapple with the issue, regardless of their intuitive leanings.

Paul Russell at a University Debate in Adelaide
It's too long ago now for me to have any recollection of whether or not my generation was like this, but it's refreshing to see that this generation won't blindly accept the shibboleths of their immediate forebears.

Regularly I observe that part of their thinking-out-loud thought process involves throwing up the kind of broad-brush statements that they may have heard on the issue and forming them as a question: But what about...?

The most common question, by far goes something like: "We put down our pet dogs - why can't we do the same (for humans)?" Rather than enter into some sort of philosophical debate I pose a further question:
"What are you arguing for? The treatment of animals as human or the treatment of humans as animals? Which is it?"
In a recent BBC interview, Professor Stephen Hawking made a similar observation: “We don’t let animals suffer, so why humans?” Hawking, probably unwittingly, is perpetuating a myth that we treat animals better than humans.

I say its a myth because the reality about animal destruction tells a different story; one that chillingly mirrors concerns about human euthanasia.

Disability Activist and spokesman for Not Dead Yet in the U.S, Stephen Drake has written extensively on the subject.
Stephen Drake
…the statistics on the euthanasia rates of animal rates in shelters paint a grim picture. The reasons owners abandon them there aren't very pretty either:

* They are abandoned and unwanted. According to the American Humane Association, “56% of dogs and 71% of cats that enter animal shelters are euthanized.”
* They have a personality or behaviour problem. (According to the SPCA, this is the single most common reason for euthanizing dogs accounting for as much as 60% of cases.)
* Their caregivers are no longer willing or no longer able to continue caring for them.
* They are considered to be unattractive.
* They have a treatable health condition but euthanasia is a cheaper alternative.
* They are getting old.
* They have physical traits considered to be undesirable for their breed.
* They have untreatable terminal diseases and are in pain.
In many cases, there is no single, clear reason.
So, do we want to be treated like animals? And when you think about it, what do we mean when we say that someone is 'an animal'? We're usually referring to a trait or behaviour that we observe to be 'sub-human', or, to put it another way, beneath human dignity.


Thinking about the issue that way, would anyone in their right mind call Professor Hawking an animal? Not on your life! In many significant ways Hawking epitomizes human dignity in adversity and the resilience and determination of the human spirit.

So how is it that treating humans like animals is 'Death with Dignity'? There's a distinct absence of dignity even in the thought that a person is 'an animal'. Yet, some of the reasons for euthanasing animals have already crept into the poisonous language for human euthanasia. Others are what people living with disability fear points to them.

Even degenerative conditions like ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) don't diminish human dignity. Difficult as it must be, they provide an opportunity for others to verify, to endorse and even to amplify the sufferers humanity in the way they provide care and support for people like Professor Hawking. To do anything less would be beneath human dignity.

Although the catch cry of the pro-euthanasia movement talks about a dignified death, the reality is that with euthanasia we would be treating humans like animals, diminishing the human dignity of all concerned and, by extension, society as a whole.

See other articles on this subject:

Stephen Hawking is a great scientist but his advice on decriminalising assisted suicide should be given short shrift

Stephen Hawking creates confusion about what constitutes assisted suicide - puts disabled people at risk



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