Does Science Sanction Euthanasia or Physician-Assisted Suicide?

By Weikart, Richard | The Human Life Review, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Does Science Sanction Euthanasia or Physician-Assisted Suicide?


Weikart, Richard, The Human Life Review


Ever since the Scientific Revolution, intellectuals have been struggling to figure out the limits of science. Some, such as Isaac Newton, used math and empirical science as powerful tools to understand the natural world, but did not consider them helpful in other spheres of knowledge, such as religion, morality, or politics. Later, however, David Hume, Auguste Comte, and others would insist that empirical science and math were the only valid sources of knowledge. They and many later positivists and materialists molded a comprehensive scientific worldview that provides answers about everything, including who we humans are and how we should live.

This extension of science to all domains of life-often called scientism by critics-has profound implications for the debate over euthanasia (for a more detailed discussion of this issue, see my new book, The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life). During the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, several prominent thinkers believed that their scientific outlook should replace traditional notions of religion and morality, including the Christian prohibitions on suicide. In his posthumously published essay "On Suicide," for instance, Hume argued that suicide should be permitted because human life, in his arresting words, "is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster."1 Hume failed to tell us what scientific experiment or empirical observation supported this assertion.

Though discussion about suicide began in earnest in the eighteenth century, the debate over euthanasia only surfaced in the late nineteenth century. Earlier, the word "euthanasia" had meant providing pain relief to dying patients, but by the late nineteenth century the meaning had shifted to a medical hastening of death. Many of the early proponents of this new understanding of euthanasia not only supported suicide and assisted suicide, but also favored killing people with disabilities without their consent. These early euthanasia advocates often appealed to science to justify their position.

In Germany the first serious proposal to kill people with disabilities came from Ernst Haeckel, a leading Darwinian biologist. In the 1870 edition of his popular book on biological evolution, The Natural History of Creation, he proposed killing infants with disabilities. He worried that modem medicine and humanitarianism would allow the weak and sick to survive to reproduce, thus subverting humanity's evolutionary progress. To prevent such an outcome, he suggested various eugenics proposals, including infanticide.2 By 1904, Haeckel was publicly supporting the killing of disabled adults. He thought decisions on who should be killed should be left to the physicians, not the patients.3

In 1870, the same year as Haeckel's book, Samuel D. Williams wrote an essay entitled "Euthanasia" for the Essays of the Birmingham Speculative Club, setting off the British debate over euthanasia. Despite the journal's small circulation, Williams' essay attracted attention and provoked discussion in other British journals in the 1870s. Like Haeckel, Williams wished to replace the Judeo-Christian sanctity-of-life ethic with a secular, scientific ethic. Both men stressed euthanasia's beneficial role in the evolutionary struggle for existence. Williams pointed out that the struggle for survival in nature results in "the continuous crushing out of the weak, and the consequent maintenance of what is called ?the vigour of the race.'" Since, according to Williams, death for the sickly was not only inevitable but also beneficial to society, he argued that "Man should ensure that the weak went to the wall in the most comfortable fashion."4 Williams' position was too radical for most Britons, and the medical profession of his time remained adamantly opposed to euthanasia. Only in 1901 did the first British physician publicly support assisted suicide and involuntary euthanasia for the disabled.5

However, growing secularism, combined with the increasing acceptance of Darwinism, contributed to a climate that made euthanasia more acceptable. …

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