Canadian historian Dowbiggin succeeds admirably in setting today's debate over physician-assisted suicide and the 'right to die' in the context of major intellectual and political trends of the twentieth century. Before World War I, the idea of euthanasia attracted progressive thinkers seeking to apply Darwinian science to social problems and moral issues once considered religion's domain. Theodore Roosevelt, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Helen Keller, and feminists such as Margaret Sanger (who equated 'death control' with birth control as essential to individual liberty) were among its prominent backers. Drawing on the movement's archives, the author traces the rise of the Euthanasia Society of America with its disquieting affinity for eugenics, its post-war transformation into the Society for the Right to Die, and its modern manifestations in Jack Kevorkian, Oregon's suicide initiative, and grassroots fears that medical advances will deprive Americans of death with dignity and force us to share the fates of Karen Quinlan and Nancy Cruzan. Although Dowbiggin concludes that acceptance of euthanasia has declined since its peak in the 1990s, he never oversimplifies the issues at stake. The compelling stories in this book anchor euthanasia to the heart of our modern cultural divide, which pits boundless individualism against meaningful community, asserts the need to free sex and death from unhealthy taboos even as the social fabric unravels - and leaves unanswered the great question of what it means to be human apart from religion and the divine. 249 pp.
An Eighth Day View:
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.