“A Merciful End”: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America and its origins

What happens when “reformers” convince themselves they’ve discovered a formula for pure utopian bliss

By Dave Andrusko

It’s not exactly breaking news that pro-lifers are engaged in a struggle against euthanasia and its more “respectable” cousin, assisted suicide not just here in the United States but on many continents. The forces of death have experienced tremendous success in the Low Countries—the Netherlands and Belgium and Canada (to name just a few).

We’ve fought our own battles here in the United States, with much more success but always with the knowledge that the “Compassion & Choices” crew is financially well-endowed, enjoys an essentially uncritical press, and is absolutely relentless.

We might think that the modern euthanasia movement is, well, modern. It’s not. Its origins go back a century and a half. The best short but comprehensive history of its development is a book written a while back by Professor Ian Dowbiggin titled A Merciful End which I have reviewed elsewhere and which I habitually re-read.

Do not be thrown by the off-putting title. Prof. Dowbiggin’s book is not only a carefully researched and scrupulously fair-minded treatise, it’s also a highly engaging read. The book functions both as a social-science lesson and as a cautionary tale of what happens when “reformers” convince themselves they’ve discovered a formula for pure utopian bliss.

A Merciful End comprehensively traces the twists and turns primarily of the Euthanasia Society of America. While euthanasia proponents often trimmed their sails to the prevailing winds, the destination for many, if not most, has remained constant: active euthanasia for the willing and , increasingly, the unwilling. (Dowbiggin writes that the “distinction” was “incidental” to many euthanasia supporters.)

The book explodes the myth “that the modern euthanasia movement began only in the 1960s and 1970s with the introduction of life-prolonging medical technology, the decline of the doctor-patient relationship, the rise of the ‘rights culture,’ medicine’s inept handling of end-of-life care and the AIDS epidemic.”

In fact its roots go back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Support for euthanasia was frequently a package deal for members of the avant garde. In Prof. Dowbiggin’s words, euthanasia “was a critical component of a broad reform agenda designed to emancipate society from anachronistic and ultimately unhealthy ideas about sex, birth and death.”

We forget how many prominent Americans were supporters of euthanasia and (frequently) its ideological twin sister, eugenics. “Progressives” all, they believed passionately that death would be the “last taboo to fall in the struggle to free Americans from what birth control activist Margaret Sanger, herself an ESA member, called ‘biological slavery.’”

Greasing the skids for euthanasia was the embrace of eugenics — “evolution in a hurry” to many supporters. With a childlike faith in science and technocratic expertise, eugenicists were supremely confident the human race could be perfected through selective sterilization and euthanasia.

The idea of “improving the race” served the interests of the euthanasia movement well until discredited by the Nazis. And while Dowbiggin cautions about “playing the Nazi card,” the similarities in language can be striking.

At one time, the center of gravity for the euthanasia movement in the United States was Manhattan. Elitist to the core, its membership strongly supported active euthanasia: direct killing.

But the Euthanasia Society of America and kindred organizations made minimal headway until retooling and softening their message in the late ’60s. By repacking their pitch as a “right to die” issue, they capitalized on our culture’s obsession with individual rights and “choice,” which first took hold in that decade. Rejecting “unwanted treatment” combined an appeal to individual decision making with a fear of an insensitive medical bureaucracy.

From the beginning people of faith and, especially the Catholic Church, were seen by the euthanasia movement as primary opponents. Such people, they complained, exerted a “stranglehold of tradition and religious dogma” that, they decided, had to be broken. What euthanasia proponents may not have anticipated was the virtually uniform opposition of the Disability Rights Community.

A Merciful End offers two explanations for the very limited “success” of the American euthanasia movement. One was a bitter division between the “radicals” and the “moderates” within the euthanasia movement. The other is the rise of a broad-based coalition that came to include the disability-rights activists and the pro-life movement.

This resistance was aided immeasurably by a 1994 report by the New York State Task Force on Life and the Law, an out-of-control Jack Kevorkian, and Vacco v Quill, a unanimous 1997 Supreme Court decision that found there was no right to assisted suicide in the Constitution. And in the last decade, there has been a stunning turnaround with far greater attention paid to pain relief, palliative care and hospice treatment.

Of course, the “softer” assisted-suicide wing understands how to package its deadly product. It ignores everything, beginning with the obvious and well-document history of abuse, to focus with laser-like intensity on “autonomy” and the “right” to be aided by the medical community. Ominously, its intolerance for the right of conscience grows by the day.

The coalition to fight euthanasia/assisted suicide will need to be at its sharpest and its most determined. If Prof. Dowbiggin’s book teaches us anything, it is that ideas once justly discarded can in the hands of the PR-savvy, be rehabilitated.