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The ‘Euthanasia’ Euphemism

In response to:

The Sickness in Our Food Supply from the June 11, 2020 issue

To the Editors:

Michael Pollan’s “The Sickness in Our Food Supply” [NYR, June 11] presents a compelling indictment of the modern American food system. But in detailing the exploitation of workers and the deterioration of consumers’ diet and health, the article seems studiously to avoid mention of the havoc wreaked on other animals. Indeed, it does the opposite by referring, twice, to the need to “euthanize” animals by the thousands and millions because of Covid-19 supply-chain problems.

Drawing by Edward Lear

The New York Review is a periodical devoted to the proper and best use of language. It is therefore surprising, not to mention distressing, to see that the editors gave this euphemism a pass. “Euthanasia” designates a certain type of killing having two primary components. One is that the killing is for the benefit of the one being killed. The other is that the killing be “gentle.” (“Kind” might sum up these two components in a single word.)

The killing that has gone on during the current pandemic satisfies neither of these criteria. The animals do not desire to die. And the methods being used to kill them are not anything one would condone for any of these animals if they happened to be one’s pet (an apt proxy for humane or kind killing); for example:

The preferred methods of euthanizing hogs include gunshots, bolt guns or electrocution, but when thousands of animals must be destroyed en masse, one option is to shut off ventilation causing heat to build up and kill them, said Chris Rademacher, a veterinarian and associate director of Iowa State University’s Iowa Pork Industry Center.*

Compounding the absurdity of using the “euthanasia” euphemism to designate killing without qualification is to highlight the use of it in circumstances where the killing is simply taking the place of killing in a slaughterhouse. At least the latter is straightforwardly named, though I wonder when the industry (and its critics!) will adopt a French word to pardon its English. The only differences between the present euthanasia and the normal slaughter are which unkind method of killing will be used and which exploited workers have to do the dirty work.

Joel Marks
Professor Emeritus of Philosophy
University of New Haven
Bioethics Center Scholar
Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut

Michael Pollan replies:

I’m grateful to Professor Marks for calling this out: I should never have repeated the industry’s euphemism uncritically, but rather stated clearly that the animals were being either asphyxiated or shot.

  1. *

    David Pitt, “Slaughterhouses Reopen But Farmers Still Euthanizing Pigs,” Associated Press, May 29, 2020.