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A Merciful End: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America
A Merciful End: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America
Ian Dowbiggin
Oxford University Press, 2003
272 pp., $71.00

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Merciful Release: A History of the British Euthenasia Movement
Merciful Release: A History of the British Euthenasia Movement
Nick Kemp
Manchester University Press, 2002
288 pp., $33.95

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by Richard Weikart


Killing Them Kindly

Lessons from the euthanasia movement.

Decades ago a prominent euthanasia proponent stated that "there is a place in humanity for murder, that is to say by killing the unfit." Another commanded, "Chloroform unfit children. Show them the same mercy that is shown beasts that are no longer fit to live." One might be forgiven for thinking that these were rantings of a Nazi leader, for they do reflect the ideology underlying the Nazi euthanasia program, during which about 100,000 handicapped Germans were murdered by physicians under government direction. But alas, these statements came from prominent British and American progressives—the former from the British physician Havelock Ellis, and the latter from the controversial American lawyer Clarence Darrow.

These statements illustrate two important points stressed by Ian Dowbiggin and Nick Kemp in their recent books on the euthanasia movement in the United States and Britain, respectively. First, despite efforts by Anglo-American euthanasia advocates to distance themselves from the horrors of the Nazi euthanasia program, the euthanasia movement was not as far removed from Nazi ideology as it wanted outsiders to believe. Second, statements supporting involuntary euthanasia for the mentally handicapped were rather common in the euthanasia movement, providing ammunition for euthanasia opponents. Critics of legislation to permit voluntary euthanasia continually protested that this would begin a rapid descent down a slippery slope.

Kemp points out that the slippery slope argument is not all that rigorous philosophically. The euthanasia movement has often capitalized on this by insisting that it only supports voluntary euthanasia (i.e., assisted suicide) for terminally ill patients enduring intense suffering. To emphasize that it only promoted voluntary measures, the British organization for euthanasia dubbed itself the Voluntary Euthanasia Legalization Society when it was founded in 1936, and after several name changes in between, adopted the name Voluntary Euthanasia ...

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