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

By Shai J. Lavi | Go to book overview

EPILOGUE

Art and Technique, Death and Freedom

OUR STUDY of euthanasia in America began with colonial times, when the word still signified a pious death blessed by the grace of God. It continued with the medicalization of death in the nineteenth century, which was soon followed by attempts to legalize the hastening of death. The struggle to legalize euthanasia took a radical turn with the founding of the Euthanasia Society of America, when proposals to hasten death were applied to handicapped and mentally retarded patients. The final section of this study compared the legalization of euthanasia with two alternative means of actively hastening death; the sublegal act of lethal dosing and the supralegal act of mercy killing.

The history of euthanasia recounted in the preceding pages concludes in the 1960s, but the story of euthanasia does not end there. On the contrary, for many scholars the story begins in the 1960s, with the advancements in medical techniques and the rise of patient rights. As one scholar wrote, “Ever since the 1960s, when medical science became capable of prolonging the dying process beyond bounds that many patients would find acceptable, people have sought 'death with dignity,' or 'a natural death,' or 'a good death.' ”1

Our study has attempted to correct the prevailing account of the history of euthanasia. To consider euthanasia as a late twentieth-century dilemma is both historically inaccurate and conceptually misleading. Euthanasia is not a response to the advance of medical technology nor to the ability of medicine to prolong life beyond acceptable bounds. As we have seen, euthanasia proposals first emerged in the late nineteenth century, long before medicine achieved its unprecedented ability to prolong human life. More important, associating euthanasia with advances in medical techniques overlooks the connections between euthanasia and deep cultural changes that made euthanasia possible. For euthanasia to emerge, no significant medical breakthrough was necessary but rather fundamental changes in the ways we wish for our lives to end; namely, the decline of the art of dying and the rise of technical mastery over death.

And yet, it would be a mistake to ignore some important developments

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