Lethal Dosing: Technique beyond the Law
IN 1936, a bill was introduced before the British House of Lords, the purpose of which was to legalize medical euthanasia under certain conditions and limitations.1 The bill failed to pass a second reading, though it won the support of more than a fourth of the House members. The Catholic members of the House, whose unwavering position against euthanasia was predictable, strongly objected to the bill. The scales were tilted, however, not by religious objection but by a speech delivered by Lord Dawson, one of England's eminent physicians.2 Lord Dawson presented before the House of Lords medical and social considerations opposing the legalization of euthanasia. His argument was surprising. Dawson did not argue that the practice of euthanasia violated medical, moral or legal norms. His main argument was, rather, that there was no need for the law. Physicians, he believed, were ever more willing to alleviate the pain of the dying, even when it involved the shortening of life. The development of these new medical practices would serve as an alternative solution to euthanasia. These practices, which heretofore had not been popular, were now spreading among the medical profession and reaching the laity as well. In time, Dawson predicted, there would be no need to discuss the legalization of euthanasia: The pain of terminally ill patients would be alleviated even at the price of hastening the time of death. According to Dawson, the development of medical and technological practices would serve as an alternative route, deeming legislation needless.
Dawson saw ahead of his time. In his 1936 speech, he foresaw the emergence of a new medical practice that could be named “lethal dosing.” In it, physicians would provide terminally ill patients with the necessary dosage to alleviate their pain, knowing that such action would hasten their death.
Over the course of the century, this medical practice that took off in the early decades of the twentieth century gradually turned into a widely accepted medical practice.3 Today, lethal dosing is not only regularly practiced in hospitals and hospices but is openly recognized and recommended