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History of Euthanasia

The term “Euthanasia” originates from the Greek words for “good death”. It refers to both, intentionally ending a person’s life by carrying out a fatal act (active), or withholding life-saving or life-prolonging medical treatment (passive). It can also be further categorized into voluntary, non-voluntary, and involuntary, depending on patient consent. Physician-assisted suicide and assisted suicide are large components of the contemporary debate. The euthanasia debate has existed for thousands of years, with the practice existing as far back as Ancient Greece and Rome. The rise of religion played a major role in the history of euthanasia, and had a significant impact on the way human life and death were viewed. Euthanasia is opposed by all of the major religions, even though differences of opinion exist between adherents. On the whole, all of the major religions affirm that it is wrong to interfere with the natural life cycle, for varying reasons.

Looking at the earliest documented history of euthanasia, we find that it was supported by Plato, Socrates, and Seneca the Elder, but it appears that Hippocrates was against it, stating that he would provide neither the medication nor the advice to bring about a person’s death. In general, however, at this time, suicide, infanticide, euthanasia and mercy killings were commonly accepted and supported. Fast forward to the birth of Christianity, and attitudes began to completely shift, with even suicide being viewed as shameful and sinful, and both Jews and Christians tending to oppose euthanasia. This viewpoint continued throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, although writers began to challenge the authority of the church during the Renaissance and the Reformation. In the 1870s, morphine was starting to be used extensively as a pain reliever, but Samuel Williams, who was not a physician, publicly advocated for using it to intentionally end a patient’s life. His suggestion was widely opposed and many people likened it to turning doctors into executioners. In November 1915, John Bollinger was born with severe physical defects in a Chicago hospital, and the chief of staff, Dr. Haiselden, determined that the child would die without surgery, but opted not to carry it out, stating that he would stand by passively and allow the child to die naturally. He then continued this process with other deformed and disabled babies, becoming famous for his stance and actions.

By far the most famous application of euthanasia, though, occurred in the 1940s in Nazi Germany, where mental patients and disabled children were routinely euthanized, often without any form of consent, in a plan called Action T4, and other “undesirable” groups were murdered in concentration camps. Prominent supporters of euthanasia scrambled to deny that they supported this type of action.

In 1950, the World Medical Association condemned euthanasia under any circumstances, but in the early 1970s, the idea of patients’ rights and autonomy became more significant. Several cases followed where patients being kept alive by hospital equipment, were granted the right to have their respirators or feeding tubes removed. The World Federation of right to Die Societies was founded in 1980, and although mindsets have largely changed regarding suicide, euthanasia is still a divisive and contentious issue.

As the law currently stands, euthanasia is legal in the Benelux countries of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, and assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, Albania, Colombia, and the states of Washington, Oregon and Montana. Many other countries and states have ongoing euthanasia debates, so although the history of euthanasia is clear, the future is not.