What’s in the Name; How euthanasia became euthanasia

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During a podcast with Clinician’s Brief this week, I was asked if I had the power of time travel, would I go forward 100 years to see what veterinarians were up to, or go back 100 years in the past. My reply was to go back in time so I could help veterinarians understand safer approaches to euthanasia; to speed up better patient and client care.  It got me thinking about the history of euthanasia again, in particular how the term euthanasia itself, something we teach in CAETA’s Master Program.

Euthanasia is derived from the Greek word Eu, meaning good, and Thanatos, meaning death. Combining the words gives us euthanasia, aka good death. The term appears first through the works of the Roman historian Suetonius, in his writings On the Lives of the Caesars. He uses the term euthanasia to signify an easy death, a death not associated with the act of taking life, but rather just experiencing the quintessential gentle end; loved ones gathered close, peace and acceptance that death has come, and all affairs in order. Suetonius describes how the emperor Augustus, dying quickly and without suffering, in the arms of his wife, experienced the euthanasia he had hoped for. The word’s next recognized usage comes from Sir Francis Bacon in the 1600’s. Sir Francis Bacon was using the term in much the same ways in an effort to try to convince the medical community to pay attention to the dying.  He was irritated with the medical community for leaving patients to suffer unnecessarily.  Sir Bacon wanted medical advancements to alleviate pain and suffering so the dying could achieve euthanasia. Neither man advocated for the act of taking life, but rather sought to recognize a good one and advocate for what we know as palliative care and hospice today.

In 1870, the definition of euthanasia changed forever. A school teacher named Williams wanted to see views around human death changed from the grips of religious stronghold wherein assisted suicide or mercy killing was deemed morally wrong, to a more scientific reasoning where death should be advocated for or allowed, especially in times of suffering.  It would in turn reduce the risk of disease pandemics and strengthen the human race.  In the scientific thread of Darwinism, the age of enlightenment, and a concept called eugenics where the strongest should survive, his published work using the term euthanasia as the act of taking life, and it forged we arrive at are common usage today.  It now means to declare another being’s existence no longer in the best interest of that being, that they would be better off released from their body and all its misfortunes, and that society would benefit as well.  End the life to end the pain, and do it as gently as possible.  Once the new definition grew in popularity, it soon spilled over into animal death. 

Animal euthanasia can be further categorized into active or passive. Active or direct euthanasia is the act of causing death deliberately by administering a toxic substance or acute physical method leading to death, ideally within a few minutes. When we consider the classic manifestation of euthanasia with companion animals, this is the definition that most closely reflects current veterinary practices.  

Euthanasia has evolved greatly over the past 100 years and there is more significance to death and dying than ever before. There is an old adage that says to ‘die like an animal’ meaning to die alone, afraid, or forgotten, and in essence, to die poorly.  As Dr. Jessica Pierce, the bioethicist says in her book The Last Walk, “It is time to change it so that dying like an animal means something far richer and more meaningful.” 

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Dr. Kathleen Cooney

DVM, CHPV, DACAW resident Founder, Senior Director of Education for the Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy