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

By Shai J. Lavi | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR

Euthanasia as Public Policy: The Euthanasia
Society of America

Introduction

IN THE PREVIOUS CHAPTERS, we saw how dying was delivered from the hands of the priest to those of the physician and how euthanasia, as the modern art of dying, changed first from a religious ethic into a medical duty and then, with the early attempts at legalization, into state law. This chapter follows the story of euthanasia into the second half of the twentieth century, as it takes yet another turn.

Nothing could manifest this next development more than the establishment of the Euthanasia Society of America (ESA) in 1938;1 and no one could better capture this transformation than its founder, Dr. Charles Potter. Speaking of the moral barriers standing in the way of institutionalizing euthanasia, Potter explained:

[P]ublic opinion … is the only morality, as sociologists well know,
even if clergymen do not. The law may warn; medical ethics may
frown; and the church may threaten with the fires of hell, but public
opinion is stronger than all three. If you doubt that fact, you have but
to look at the parallel case of birth control, which indeed the Roman
Catholic authorities have coupled with mercy-killing already.2

Euthanasia was no longer first and foremost a religious, medical, or legal problem. Potter's words imply the rise of euthanasia as a social concern. The most obvious manifestation of this change was the growing importance of public opinion for the euthanasia struggle. The founding of the Euthanasia Society of America was meant to address this change.3

While the ESA was still committed to the legalization of euthanasia, passing euthanasia bills was no longer its single goal. Unlike the previous sporadic attempts to legalize euthanasia, the ESA launched a comprehensive war on several fronts. During its first years, in addition to introducing euthanasia bills, the ESA sought the support of thousands of members,

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