Making a Killing by Richard Weikart

Book Review

Making a Killing

A Concise History of Euthanasia: Life, Death, God, and Medicine by Ian Dowbiggin

Rowman & Littlefield, 2005
(172 pages, $22.95, paperback)

The Modern Art of Dying: A History of Euthanasia in the United States by Shai Lavi

Princeton University Press, 2005
(226 pages, $29.95, hardcover)

The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia by Neil Gorsuch

Princeton University Press, 2006
(311 pages, $29.95, hardcover)

As the Terri Schiavo case illustrated so poignantly a couple of years ago, debates over end-of-life decisions still stir passions and arouse contentious debate, and the dispute is heavily influenced by religious and philosophical presuppositions (on both sides). How could it be otherwise?

Two recent works on the history of euthanasia, Ian Dowbiggin's A Concise History of Euthanasia and Shai Lavi's The Modern Art of Dying, and a recent book on The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia by Neil Gorsuch, exemplify the differences that have polarized public and scholarly opinion.

While Dowbiggin carefully examines the history of the euthanasia movement to present a cautionary tale, Lavi presents a selective and sometimes inaccurate history to advance a particular legal position. Gorsuch sets forth an erudite legal argument that effectively undermines Lavi's argument.

Dowbiggin depicts the rise of the euthanasia movement as a product of broader religious, ideological, and social developments influencing the medical profession from without, but Lavi believes the movement arose primarily through changes within medical practice, as physicians in the nineteenth century began to play a more active role in relieving pain at their patients' deathbeds.

Lavi portrays legal euthanasia as an irresistible development fostered by modern medical practices. Dowbiggin believes the euthanasia movement has stalled (at least in the Anglo-American world), a development Gorsuch hopes to ensure.

Dowbiggin seems to favor Catholic and conservative Protestant positions on euthanasia. Lavi openly dismisses Catholic teachings on bioethics as "medieval doctrine" and eschews any objective moral standards. Gorsuch insists that his arguments are defensible on secular grounds and eschews overt religious arguments, though he recognizes that his views comport well with traditional Christian positions. The debate is on.

Inescapable Tragedy

Dowbiggin, a professor of history at the University of Prince Edward Island and author of the excellent A Merciful End: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America (2003), opens his book with an illustration of the complexities of end-of-life decisions. In 1998 Maurice Genereux, a Canadian physician, was sentenced to two years in prison for helping a patient commit suicide. Testifying against him was Mark Jewitt, happy he was still alive after surviving a suicide attempt using drugs prescribed to him for that purpose by Genereux.


Richard Weikart is professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, and author of From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany and Hitler's Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress (both from Palgrave Macmillan). Some of his writings can be found at www.csustan.edu/history/faculty/weikart.

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