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

By Shai J. Lavi | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX

Mercy Killing: The Limits of Technique

THE HISTORY of euthanasia, presented in the previous chapters, began with the decline of the ars moriendi tradition in the early nineteenth century. The passing of the traditional art of dying was accompanied by the rise of medical euthanasia as a new way to die. Shortly thereafter, euthanasia moved beyond the medical sphere into the realm of positive law and social policy. Finally, during the mid-twentieth century, the technical mastery over dying furthered its reign with the emerging practice of lethal dosing. With lethal dosing, euthanasia disappeared as a problem and death became a mere side effect of the medical effort to relieve pain.

The story of euthanasia would not be complete, however, if viewed only within this line of development, that is, the medicalization, legalization, and bureaucratization of euthanasia. While there is no doubt that the latter developments have become central to the way we die, we must also note alternative forms of euthanasia that have existed alongside and in tension with the attempts to regulate death.

This chapter presents a different practice of euthanasia, performed by a layperson rather than by a doctor. I shall refer to such cases as mercy killings proper, to distinguish them from the practice of medicalized and legalized euthanasia discussed in earlier chapters. Mercy killing, as opposed to euthanasia, involves neither the white-robed physician nor the black-robed lawyer. What further distinguishes mercy killing from legalized euthanasia is its ambiguous legal status. Though mercy killers act in clear violation of state law, they often receive surprisingly lenient punishments.

“Mercy killings,” a New York magazine reported in 1939, “now occur
in the United States at the rate of about one a week. Mercy killers are
those who take the lives of some member of the family afflicted with
insanity or some incurable malady. They are seldom convicted. The
longest sentence given a mercy killer was three months in prison.”1

The magazine report overstated the leniency in punishment, but the overall picture it portrayed was generally accurate. In more than seventy documented cases of mercy killing from the 1920s to the 1960s, nearly

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