Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

A Concise History of Euthanasia

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

A Concise History of Euthanasia

Article excerpt

Life Unworthy of Life A CONCISE HISTORY OF EUTHANASIA by IAN DOWBIGGIN Rowman and Littlefield, 176 pages, $22.95

TO READ IAN DOWBIGGIN'S A Concise History of Euthanasia is to learn that in more than a century of advocacy for euthanasia, the arguments have barely changed at all.

The drive to legalize killing as an acceptable answer to the problems associated with human suffering is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history. True, as Dowbiggin reports, assisted suicide and what we now call euthanasia were unremarkable in antiquity: Roman doctors were allowed to kill their patrons if requested, for example. Indeed, Dowbiggin writes, the Hippocratic Oath's ancient requirement that doctors forebear assisting the suicides of patients may have been a "kind of protest against the frequency with which euthanasia was practiced."

But once Christianity became dominant in Europe, the doctor's role changed dramatically. Deeply influenced by the Judaism that viewed suicide as "an affront to God that demonstrated contempt for the gift of life," Christianized Europe forbade the practice of exposing disabled infants, and doctors (such as they were) ceased participating in the intentional ending of their patients' lives.

Dunng the next 1,500 years, suicide was universally deemed in the West to be a reprehensible act against God and community. Death-bed suffering was to be accepted stoically, and the role of doctors was merely to be present and caring for patient and family throughout the ordeal. Those who short-circuited these travails with suicide were unmercifully condemned. Indeed, medieval society's response to the tragedy of suicide was not in the least what we today would consider Christian. "Self murder," as it was then known (the word suicide wasn't coined until 1642), was deemed so heinous that the body of a suicide victim would be dragged through the streets and his property confiscated to impoverish his heirs.

Attitudes toward suicide and the duty of doctors to alleviate suffering rather than merely bear witness to it began to shift in the eighteenth century, Dowbiggin reports. With the coming of the Enlightenment, some philosophers and public intellectuals saw suicide "as a rationalist protest against conventional morality." Thus Voltaire and, especially, David Hume argued that people should be free to commit suicide if they perceived their lives to be too burdensome. But even then, Dowbiggin notes, "the boundaries between a right to suicide and a social duty to kill oneself were never terribly clear."

Yet it wasn't the emerging rationalism of the Enlightenment that launched the international euthanasia movement we see in our time: For every Hume and Voltaire, there was a Kant and Wesley arguing powerfully against what today is called the "right to die." Rather, it was the explosion of nineteenth-century materialist thinking that finally shattered society's religion-based moral and ethical consensus against suicide and mercy killing.

In other words, this change in attitudes toward mercy killing was a symptom, not a cause. What was really going on, the author asserts rightly, was an epochal shift away from the belief that human life has intrinsic value simply because it is human. Thus it is hardly surprising that euthanasia advocacy emerged concurrently with the rise of even more pernicious and destructive movements such as eugenics and social Darwinism.

Dowbiggin traces modern euthanasia advocacy back to 1870 and an essay by a schoolteacher named Samuel D. Williams. Williams was the first to redefine the word euthanasia away from meaning a peaceful natural death experienced amid the love of family while in a state of grace, to the act of mercy killing-a definition that has stuck to this day.

It is fascinating how this first essay contained many of the same arguments that are voiced by contemporary proponents of assisted suicide. (Dowbiggin should have reproduced it in an appendix. …

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