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 in Oregon, 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.