How to have end-of-life conversations

Speakers at the AVMA Humane Endings Symposium touch on ethics and empathy

Story and photo by Scott Nolen
Published: 21 April 2023

When is death the best or even an acceptable option for an animal?

It’s a complex question, one that neither science nor ethics can fully answer. Given all that is at stake, conversations about euthanasia and depopulation can be extremely difficult and contentious.

With that in mind, the opening morning of the AVMA Humane Endings Symposium, held Jan. 26-29 in Chicago, featured presentations on the challenges of talking about ending animal life.

“Part of what makes these conversations so difficult is that there’s a need to engage the embedded ethics questions hidden within the topic, and sometimes it can be difficult to discuss these conversations collegially,” said Candace Croney, PhD, director of the Center for Animal Welfare Science at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine.

As the opening speaker of the symposium, Dr. Croney suggested following Campbell’s ethics assessment process as a model ethical framework for difficult decisions that balance the interests and values of all stakeholders. The six-step process is as follows:

  • Ethical framing: What are the ethical issues? Who or what is impacted?
  • Ethics jam: What values or principles are creating conflict and how?
  • Ethical fact-finding: What do we need to know?
  • Constructing alternatives: What could be done?
  • Moral justification: Which options are the most ethically defensible? What should be done?
  • Moral testing: Can the proposed verdict be implemented? If made public, could decision-makers defend it?

“This last part is the most important test—the ‘golden rule’ test,” Dr. Croney said. “If you were not involved in the decision making, would you willingly accept the decision?”

To see the full version of this story, visit the AVMA News website.