A MERCIFUL END: The Euthanasia Movement in America

Ian Dowbiggin, Author . Oxford Univ. $28 (272p) ISBN 978-0-19-515443-6

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.)

Reviewed on: 12/23/2002
Release date: 01/01/2003
Genre: Nonfiction
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