The Modern Art of Dying: A History of Euthanasia in the United States

By Shai J. Lavi | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE

Legalizing Euthanasia: The Role of Law
and the Rule of Technique

Introduction

THE PREVIOUS CHAPTER traced the emergence of euthanasia, the deliberate hastening of death, as a medical response to a crisis in the treatment of the dying patient. The hopelessness of cure and the meaningless suffering of pain led some physicians and laymen to promote euthanasia as a solution to the problem of dying. Euthanasia's origins are in the medical context, as a treatment of a medically defined condition. However, it did not remain within the confines of medical discourse and practice for long.

Soon after Samuel Williams, Lionel Tollemache, and other advocates proposed euthanasia as a medical treatment, the question of its legal status emerged. In 1906, the first attempts to legalize euthanasia took place in Ohio and Iowa. A further attempt to legalize euthanasia was made in Nebraska in 1937. In the following year, the first American euthanasia society was founded: the National Society for the Legalization of Euthanasia. This society, as its name suggests, set as its main objective the legalization of medically hastened death. The following two chapters will discuss in detail these early attempts to legalize euthanasia, along with their historical significance. Our aim is to understand what the emergence of euthanasia as a legal question entailed.

The move to legalize euthanasia may seem, at first, as the most obvious consequence of its emergence as a medical solution to the problem of dying. Since supporters of euthanasia viewed the practice not only as permissible but also as an undeniable duty of the medical profession, it was only natural that they would strive to revoke the legal ban on its practice. Legalization can be seen, from this point of view, merely as an attempt to remove the legal barrier that prevented physicians from performing medical euthanasia.

This account of legal intervention is lacking in several ways. First, it perceives law in negative terms, as an impediment, and overlooks the constructive role of law in the regulation of euthanasia. Second, it thinks of

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