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

By Shai J. Lavi | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE

The Holy Craft of Dying: The Birth of
the Modern Art of Dying

HOW DID EUTHANASIA, the medical hastening of death, become a possible way of dying? Euthanasia emerged in a particular historical period, and it is through the reconstruction of this history that we seek its understanding. The challenge is to break from common wisdom, which oscillates in its search for euthanasia's origins between early antiquity and late modernity. Medical euthanasia is neither as old as the Stoics nor as recent as the mid-twentieth-century respirator. Euthanasia, as we shall see, emerged as a nineteenth-century response to the new problem of the hopeless suffering of the dying patient.

A possible challenge may arise: is it not the case that dying, the pain accompanying it, and the despair it gave rise to, were always a problem? And if so, why did euthanasia proposals emerge only in the latter half of the nineteenth century? Should we not insist that the problem was old, while acknowledging that its medically crafted solution was new?

Indeed, the isolation of morphine from opium in the early nineteenth century and the discovery of anesthetics in the middle of that century offered the medical profession new techniques for guaranteeing a swift and painless death. Absent such means, medical euthanasia would serve as a poor alternative to natural death. And yet it would be a mistake to see in the development of any particular technique the source of the cultural transformation in the way we seek to die. The discovery of anesthesia cannot serve as an explanation because it itself—and, more strikingly, its application at the deathbed to hasten death—requires explanation.

Euthanasia, for this reason, should not be understood only as a new means for achieving a good death but rather as a new way to envision what a good death is. Instead of thinking of euthanasia technically—that is, as a means—we should think through euthanasia about the technical. Indeed, the history of euthanasia presents the rise of dying as a technical challenge, a challenge to bring death under human mastery.

To begin this inquiry, the opening chapter tells the story of how Americans

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