A Brief History of Euthanasia
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A Brief History of Euthanasia

A Good Death?

A Brief History of Euthanasia

Euthanasia is a term surrounded by a myriad of questions and concerns. It is a broad heading for several individual practices that aim to either voluntarily or involuntarily take the life of another judged to be in severe physical pain either out of mercy for the individual or for the good of the whole. Throughout history, euthanasia has been practiced, accepted, hated, or rejected. It is not a cultural discovery afforded by recent technological advances. Its origins can be traced as far back as first century Rome.[1] Although this practice has survived for centuries, it has changed with cultural values and technology. Because of this it is helpful to understand the history of the practice before engaging in a discussion about it.

The term “Euthanasia” was coined long after it was practiced by the Philosopher Francis Bacon in the Seventeenth century.[2] “Euthanasia” comes from the Greek word for “good death”. “Many ancient Greek and Roman philosophers considered suicide a ‘good death’”.[3] Pliny the Elder viewed suicide as the greatest gift given men by God. According to Pliny, suicide was a ‘triumph’ over fate and symbolized man’s autonomy. This attitude towards death permeated ancient Roman and Greek (R&G) culture. People frequently would ask “their physicians to either supply them with the means of suicide (assisted suicide) or actually hasten their deaths through medical intervention (active voluntary euthanasia)” by giving them poison.[4] Both ancient Romans and Greeks rejected the notion that all people should have equal rights. Certain people (learned men and political figures) were thought to merit more respect, honor, and privilege than others. As a result, the weak and feeble were not afforded many rights. Among these unrecognized rights, was one’s right to life. Consequently, these ancient cultures rejected the idea of the ‘sanctity of life’.[5] Abortion, infanticide, and the killing of those deemed ‘mentally feeble’ were common practices, during this time. Over the coming centuries; however, Jewish and Christian influence would cause a paradigm shift.

As Jewish and Christian notions about the sanctity of life and the inherent worth of the individual spread, euthanasia became increasingly rejected. In stark contrast to R&G culture, people from both Christian and Jewish backgrounds held that all people are created in the image of God and therefore worthy of respect and care. As Christianity and Judaism spread, their influence grew and affirmed the legitimacy of the Hippocratic oath. Although it is not specifically known when this oath was written, it is widely attributed to the physician Hippocrates and is dated anywhere from the fifth to the third century B.C. In the oath it is stipulated that one should “not give a fatal drug to anyone if…asked, nor…suggest any such thing.”.[6] Although this oath was written in antiquity, it is clear that it was seldom adhered to in the ancient medical community.[7] Ancient culture and thought were revolutionized by both the Jewish diaspora and the immergence of Christianity. Early church fathers, in the first few centuries A.D., rejected euthanasia as a form of homicide and viewed it as an affront to God. According to this view, those who practice it are committing murder and those who receive it are rejecting the gift of life given by God. Other world religions, within the first millennium, such as Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Islam held that it was wrong for one to, “[kill] themselves or others in order to relieve misery.”.[8] It was not until the early modern era, around the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, that people began to take an interest in both euthanasia and suicide, once again.

Cultural interest was sparked and people became keenly interested in suicides in an era of unprecedented sociological, technological, scientific, and cultural advancement. New world powers were emerging at this time and people gradually disregarded church authority, looking to progress as their god.[9] Traditional views towards suicide and death were challenged both in Shakespearean plays and by writers like Montaigne, who wondered if certain situations might demand suicide.[10] Leaders of the scientific revolution during this time remained suspiciously quiet and rarely addressed the morality of suicides or assisted deaths. Despite widespread cultural interest in death, more traditional views on the subject were accepted and re-affirmed by leading Christian theologians, such as Thomas Moore.[11] As a result, cultural aversion to suicide and euthanasia was normative up to the seventeenth century. It was during this time that the term “euthanasia” was first coined. This term interestingly signifies a shift in cultural thought. No longer did people refer to assisted deaths using the term for “self-murder”. Now they used the term “euthanasia” literally meaning ‘good death’.

The enlightenment of the mid seventeenth century, sparked a new interest in secularist, naturalist, individualist, and anti-clerical thoughts. Thinkers like Hume, Voltaire, and Montesquieu viewed suicide as a matter of personal liberty. They believed that given a proper education any man would be capable of making rational choices, which should be respected by virtue of his autonomy, that might well lead him to end his life.[12] David Hume contended that suicide, and by extension euthanasia, were inherent personal rights. As a result of these beliefs, these thinkers condemned the laws regarding suicide and euthanasia (SE) as an attack on personal liberty that was needless and useless.[13] These thinkers viewed euthanasia as, “an eminently rational act under many circumstances” that was “immune to religious condemnation.”.[14] Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the masses began to view these enlightenment ideas, as the result of the French revolution, the reign of terror, and the Napoleonic wars.[15] Consequently, people viewed enlightenment notions regarding suicide and euthanasia with contempt and adopted, once again, traditionally Judeo-Christian views on the subject.[16] Prominent Christian leaders, such as John Wesley helped to re-establish traditionally Christian values in the west. During this time Victorian Evangelicalism caused people to view death as, “a providential opportunity to convert at the last minute and achieve everlasting salvation.”[17] A ‘good death’ no longer referred to death as a means of escaping pain, but as a means to salvation. In the midst of this cultural shift, Wesley condemned suicide as a selfish sin and emphasized the importance of the repentance of sins. Gradually this view of suicide was widely accepted even in secular circles. The secular philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote that suicide was immoral. In his view an act can only be considered moral if it treats human beings as an end and if it could reasonably be established as a universal moral law. According to Kant, suicide fails both tests and is therefore morally impermissible.[18] Nearing the end of the eighteenth century a new wave of death and disease washed over the west.

The American Civil War, pneumonia, fever, tuberculosis, cholera, and smallpox caused tens of thousands of deaths in a relatively small window of time. These deaths highlighted the fact that the medicine of the time could only prevent and not cure disease.[19] Shortly after the American civil war, at the start of the twentieth century, medical institutions and organizations were formally established. New preventative and technological medical breakthroughs accompanied the beginning of new organizations and facilities.[20] Despite these medical breakthroughs, very little could be done to cure diseases. Physicians became comforters of the dying, rather than healers. The futility of prolonging a patient’s life became clear to the medical community and sparked the re-acceptance of euthanasia. Englishman William Munk presented euthanasia as ‘a calm and easy death’”.[21] Munk thought euthanasia only necessary when there was not proper medical palliative care and viewed it with apprehension.[22] In stark contrast with modern medicine, nineteenth century doctors thought of euthanasia in these terms. The rise of Darwinism and secularization, caused men and women to reject the notion of universal morality and view euthanasia as a means of self-preservation. Amidst this climate, utilitarian perspectives flourished and caused people view euthanasia with newfound curiosity.[23]

Shortly thereafter, feminism gave rebirth to Hume’s notion that euthanasia was an issue of personal liberty. Social workers argued that the right to euthanasia was as liberating as a woman’s right to vote, divorce, birth control, and property rights.[24] The wars and bloodshed in the twentieth century, shook European certainty in traditional religious values. As fundamentalism grew in America, skepticism flourished in a post war Europe.[25] It was not until the nineteen-sixties that euthanasia became a polarizing subject. At this time, euthanasia gained global support from foreign and diverse medical organizations.[26] Towards the close of the century the church’s influence grew and Christians fought against the legalization of euthanasia. Out of this turmoil the ‘Right to Life’ movement was born. Since this time, views of euthanasia have remained consistently divided, both in and outside of the church. Some people condemn the practice as a form of homicide, for the practitioner, and a form of suicide for the recipient; while others argue that one has an inherent right to end their life if they so choose by euthanasia. It is into this complex historical landscape that our generation finds itself. In order to better understand our present, it is helpful to understand history.

Works Cited:

[1] Ian R. Dowbiggin, A Concise History of Euthanasia (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1952). 9.

[2] Dowbiggin, 2.

[3] Dowbiggin, 1.

[4] Dowbiggin, 2.

[5] Dowbiggin, 2.

[6] Dowbiggin, 11.

[7] Dowbiggin, 11.

[8] Dowbiggin, 15.

[9] Dowbiggin, 20.

[10] Dowbiggin, 20.

[11] Dowbiggin, 22-25.

[12] Dowbiggin, 31.

[13] Dowbiggin, 30-33.

[14] Dowbiggin, 34.

[15] Dowbiggin, 35.

[16] Dowbiggin, 35.

[17] Dowbiggin, 40.

[18] Dowbiggin, 37.

[19] Dowbiggin, 42.

[20] Dowbiggin, 43.

[21] Dowbiggin, 45.

[22] Dowbiggin, 45.

[23] Dowbiggin, 52-63.

[24] Dowbiggin, 62.

[25] Dowbiggin, 64.

[26] Dowbiggin, 130-131.

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