A Merciful End: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America

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While it may seem that debates over euthanasia began with Jack Kervorkian, the practice of mercy killing extends back to Ancient Greece and beyond. In America, the debate has raged for well over a century.
Now, in A Merciful End, Ian Dowbiggin offers the first full-scale historical account of one of the most controversial reform movements in America. Drawing on unprecedented access to the archives of the Euthanasia Society of America, interviews with important figures in the movement today, and flashpoint cases such as the tragic fate of Karen Ann Quinlan, Dowbiggin tells the dramatic story of the men and women who struggled throughout the twentieth century to change the nation's attitude—and its laws—regarding mercy killing. In tracing the history of the euthanasia movement, he documents its intersection with other progressive social causes: women's suffrage, birth control, abortion rights, as well as its uneasy pre-WWII alliance with eugenics. Such links brought euthanasia activists into fierce conflict with Judeo-Christian institutions who worried that "the right to die" might become a "duty to die." Indeed, Dowbiggin argues that by joining a sometimes overzealous quest to maximize human freedom with a desire to "improve" society, the euthanasia movement has been dogged by the fear that mercy killing could be extended to persons with disabilities, handicapped newborns, unconscious geriatric patients, lifelong criminals, and even the poor. Justified or not, such fears have stalled the movement, as more and more Americans now prefer better end-of-life care than wholesale changes in euthanasia laws.
For anyone trying to decide whether euthanasia offers a humane alternative to prolonged suffering or violates the "sanctity of life," A Merciful End provides fascinating and much-needed historical context.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A 'must read' book on the history of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.... If you wonder why 'living wills' and health care 'power of attorney' won support at the ballot box but physician-assisted suicide proposals mostly failed, this book explains all."—Baltimore Sun

"Utterly fair and evenhanded. Instead of arguing the issue pro or con, he provides an exhaustively researched and objective history of euthanasia advocacy in the United States.... Dowbiggin's history provides a fascinating study in how little the movement and its tactics have actually changed over the years. Indeed, the book's narrative discloses a remarkably clear and consistent pattern, both in the strategy and substance of euthanasia advocacy, from its inception to today."—First Things

"A Merciful End is a masterful historical account of the transformation of the tiny and elitist American eugenics and euthanasia movements of the first half of the 20th Century into the much more complex 'right to die' mass movement that closed out the century. Dowbiggin's balanced, well-documented, and insightful history is a must read for anyone who wants to understand why living will and health care proxy laws were enacted in all 50 states, while physician-assisted suicide laws succeeded only in Oregon, and active euthanasia laws had no success at all."—George J. Annas, Professor of Health Law, Boston University Schools of Law, Medicine, and Public Health, and author of The Rights of Patients

"A deeply researched, well-written, and admirably well-balanced book on the highly contentious subject of euthanasia in 20th century American life. A skilled historian, he makes clear that the issue has a considerable history in the United States, dating to early in this century. He also places arguments over euthanasia, past and present, in a broad historical social and cultural context, relating these debates to a range of other claims for personal 'rights,' such as birth control and abortion. And he brings these debates into our 21st century—all in an admirably lean and clearly organized compass. This is a book that should engage readers interested in social, intellectual, cultural, legal, and medical history."—James T. Patterson, Professor of History, Brown University, and author of Dread Disease: Cancer and Modern American Culture

"In a fascinating and comprehensive analysis of the American euthanasia movement, Dowbiggin rectifies the historical record, demonstrating that the ideological justification for euthanasia lies not in the advanced medical technologies of the late 20th century, but in the social Darwinism, eugenics, and utilitarianism of the late 19th century."—Ezekiel J. Emanuel, M.D.

Publishers Weekly
Before the 20th century, "few Americans... felt that there was a need to legalize euthanasia," writes Dowbiggin, a professor of history at Canada's University of Prince Edward Island. But as the 20th century progressed, the impact of such scientific thinkers as Darwin and Spencer led to popular endorsements of various theories of eugenics that undercut religious beliefs about the sacredness of human life and promoted popular support not only for a right to die, but for the killing of the feebleminded and infirm. By 1939 "roughly 40 percent of all Americans polled said they supported legalizing government-supervised mercy-killing of the terminally ill." Dowbiggin has brought together a wealth of social history, medical knowledge and political analysis to elucidate the complex history of U.S. movements that endorsed mercy killing and the ever-shifting public sentiments that they engendered. It was the horrendous misuse of euthanasia under Nazism that shifted both the tone and the content of public discourse. Dowbiggin's clear, nuanced prose untangles the complicated interweaving of these arguments, and he is not afraid to fault the morally dubious arguments of some euthanasia partisans, who made little distinction between mercy killing and the harshest forms of eugenics. Most of Dowbiggin's arguments are illustrated through a history of the Euthanasia Society of America (founded in 1938) and chronicles its evolving positions and high profile cases such as the 1976 New Jersey Supreme Court decision to let Karen Ann Quinlin's parents remove her from a respirator. The final two chapters cover Kevorkian and AIDS-related issues, among other pivot points. Without shying away from making his own ethical judgments, Dowbiggin offers an intellectual and moral approach to a cultural flash point. (Jan.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A history of the euthanasia movement in the US from the beginning of the 20th century to the present day, tracing the tangle of philosophical, cultural, social, religious, and political forces that have shaped it. Dowbiggin (History/Univ. of Prince Edward Island) finds the impetus for America’s euthanasia movement in Social Darwinism and the Progressive movement, which helped to undermine traditional religious beliefs. Although a Chicago surgeon’s refusal to operate on a badly deformed baby brought national press coverage to the subject of euthanasia in 1915, it was not until 1938 that the Euthanasia Society of America (ESA) was founded and began its campaign to legalize mercy killing. Dowbiggin, who had access to the ESA’s archives, documents the long years of cultural war between the ESA, imbued with Unitarianism and Humanism, and the Roman Catholic church. Along the way, he explores the links between euthanasia and other social causes, such as birth control and abortion rights. From interviews with many of the movement’s leaders, Dowbiggin illuminates the tensions within the ESA as interest shifted from the legalization of mercy killing to the right to refuse unwanted medical treatment and as a West Coast grassroots activism challenged the leadership of a New York social-reformist elite. He shows how the euthanasia movement was affected by the rise of the women’s movement, by the dramatic increase in AIDS deaths, by media coverage of the troubling Karen Ann Quinlan and Nancy Cruzan cases, and by the problematic public actions of Dr. Kevorkian. He follows the adoption of living will laws across the nation and the contentious fight over legalization of assisted suicide as it unfolded inOregon, Michigan, and Maine. It’s clear from his account that public debate over the right to die is likely to continue for years to come, and the outcome is by no means certain. Well-researched and evenhanded: a valuable contribution to the literature.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195154436
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 1/28/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 272
  • Lexile: 1630L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 9.10 (w) x 6.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Ian Dowbiggin is Professor of History at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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Table of Contents

1. Origins
2. Breathrough, 1920-1940
3. Stalemate, 1940-1960
4. Riding a Great Wave, 1960-1975
5. Not That Simple, 1975-1990
6. Conclusion: The 1900's and Beyond

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