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

By Morales, Alfonso | Law & Society Review, June 2007 | Go to article overview

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


Morales, Alfonso, Law & Society Review


The Modern Art of Dying: A History of Euthanasia in the United States. By Shai J. Lavi. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005. Pp. 240. $29.95 cloth.

As Lavi writes at the beginning of the last chapter of his book,

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 legal dosing and the supralegal act of mercy killing (p. 163).

In his study, awarded the ASA Sociology of Law section book prize, Lavi explains how dying has moved from "art" to "technique," from an experience overseen by a minister and family to one of "technique" overseen by doctors and constructed by law. This study charts how medicalization, expertise, and regulation cohere, elevating "pain" to a social problem and developing strategies to foreshorten life-or, intervening to allow death to occur. Lavi's work represents the best of sociolegal scholarship: it is impressive for its clear conceptualization, its marshalling of an impressive array of historical and cultural evidence, and its lucid, clear, and elegant writing.

Lavi convincingly argues that how we die reveals a great deal about how we live. He maps the changing meaning of euthanasia, but rather than asking the expected-how did law and medical technique change the way we die?-Lavi asks, instead, why have law and medical technique come to play important and distinct roles in the way we die? The answer is delivered in three parts.

Chapter 1 considers the Colonial way of dying in America, focusing on the Methodists. For the Methodists, "dying was a work of art" (p. 39). Death was, in a sense, a part of life where the "death-bed became a microcosm of Methodist life" (p. 39). Methodists were not concerned with the pain of dying, but rather with a "death in which pain was overcome" (p. 39). Gradually, doctors intervened and, with this, a role conflict emerged between minister and doctor-allowing, as subsequent chapters argue-the emergence of "technique" over "art" at the deathbed scene.

Chapter 2 considers the emergence of the medical profession and the ways it balanced the contending images/demands of hope and life with pain and suffering. …

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