The History of Euthanasia

The History of Euthanasia

In my previous article, The Euthanasia Argument – in detail, I talk about the facts, widely viewed opinions across the world and the pros and cons of Euthanasia. Now, I will be going into the history of Euthanasia to see if this will better our understanding and help us decide whether we are for or against the issue. Don’t forget to leave a comment in the comment box below.

A brief history of euthanasia

The English medical word “euthanasia” comes from the Greek word eu meaning “good,” and the Greek word thanatos meaning “death.”

  • Hippocrates (ca. 460 BC – ca. 370 BC) – Euthanasia is mentioned in the Hippocratic Oath. The original oath states “To please no one will I prescribe a deadly drug nor give advice which may cause his death.” Even so, the ancient Greeks and Romans were not strong advocates of preserving life at any cost and were tolerant of suicide when no relief could be offered to the dying.
  • English Common Law – Suicide was a criminal act from the 1300s until the middle of the last century; this included assisting others to end their own lives.
  • Thomas More (1478-1535) – An English lawyer, scholar, author and statesman; also recognised as a saint in the Catholic Church, once envisaged a utopian community as one that would facilitate the death of those whose lives had become burdensome as a result of torturing and lingering pain.
  • Since early 1800’s – Since the early 1800s euthanasia has been a topic of debates and activism in the USA, Canada, Western Europe and Australasia. Ezekiel Emanuel (born 1957, USA), an American National Institutes of Health bioethicist said that the modern era of euthanasia was ushered in by the availability of anaesthesia.
  • New York 1828 -An anti-euthanasia law was passed in the state of New York in 1828. It is the first known anti-euthanasia law in the USA. In subsequent years many other localities and states followed suit with similar laws. Several advocates, including doctors, promoted euthanasia after the American Civil War. At the beginning of the 1900s support for euthanasia peaked in the USA, and then rose up again during the 1930s.
  • Societies – In 1935 euthanasia societies emerged in England, and in 1938 in the USA.
  • Swiss legislation – Doctor assisted suicide became legalised in Switzerland in 1937, as long as the doctor ending the patient’s life had nothing to gain.
  • After WWII – After the Second World War Glanville Williams (1911-1997, Wales. A legal professor) and Joseph Fletcher (1905-1991, USA. An Episcopal priest, he later identified himself as an atheist) emerged as proponents of euthanasia.
  • 1960s – During the 1960s advocacy for a right-to-die approach to euthanasia grew.


Rights of the Terminally Ill Act was passed in 1996 in the Northern Territory. Under the Act four patients died using a euthanasia device designed by Dr. Philip Nitschke. One year later the Act was overturned by the Federal Parliament. Dr. Nitschke responded by founding EXIT International, a pro-euthanasia group. In 2009 a quadriplegic patient, Christian Rossiter (49) was granted the right to refuse nourishment and be allowed to die; Chief Justice Wayne Martin specified that Brightwater, his caregiver, would not be held criminally responsible for following his instructions. A chest infection eventually ended Rossiter’s life.


Euthanasia is illegal in the whole of the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland). However, as the matter is now under the Scottish parliament in Scotland, it is possible that varying laws may eventually apply in future within the UK. There are stories of people fighting for assisted dying to be legal in the UK even now.

The British Voluntary Euthanasia Society (known today as EXIT) was founded by Dr. Killick Millard (1870-1952) and Lord Moynihan (1865-1936) in 1935.

The society created A Guide to Self-Deliverance, which included guidelines on how an individual could end his/her life. In 1980 the Voluntary Euthanasia Society of Scotland separated from the original society and published How to Die with Dignity. The Voluntary Euthanasia Society of Scotland has been urging the UK to change the law so that terminally ill patients may have the option of ending their lives.

Polls reveal that at least 80% of UK citizens and 64% of its GPs (general practitioners, primary care physicians) are in favour of the legalisation of euthanasia (some polls give different results for health-care professionals). However, Parliament has not passed any laws on this issue.

The Anglican Church – in 1997 Parliament voted 234-89 not to legalise euthanasia in the UK. MPs have been against passing any laws because of the Church of England’s view that “physician assisted suicide is incompatible with the Christian faith and should not be permitted by civil law.”

1957 ruling – Judge Devlin ruled in the trial in 1957 of Dr. John Bodkin Adams that causing death through the administration of lethal drugs to a patient if the intention was purely to alleviate pain, is not considered murder even if death is a potential or likely outcome.

The Suicide Act 1961 states that it is illegal to “aid, abet, counsel or procure the suicide of another” and sets a maximum prison sentence of 14 years. Doctors in the UK do often assist patients with their wishes by withholding treatment and reducing pain when death is a few days away and after consulting patients, relatives, and other health care professionals.

Inconsistency between illegality and prosecution – even though 92 Britons have gone overseas for an assisted suicide, no relatives have ever been prosecuted for assisting them – some were charged, to later find that the charges were dropped. This discrepancy between the law and legal action prompted Debbie Purdy to launch a case to clarify whether her husband would be risking prosecution if he helped her travel to a clinic in Switzerland to die. On 30th August 2009 a decision was made that the Director of Public Prosecutions had to clarify what the enforcement of the Suicide Act 1961 entailed.


The Netherlands decriminalised doctor-assisted suicide; in 2002 some restrictions were loosened. In 2002 doctor-assisted suicide was approved in Belgium.


A turning point in the euthanasia debate occurred after a public outcry over the Karen Ann Quinlan (1954-1985) case.

Karen Ann Quinlan – when Quinlan was 21 she lost consciousness after returning home from a party. She had consumed diazepam (Valium), dextropropoxyphene (an analgesic in the opioid category), and alcohol. Quinlan collapsed and stopped breathing twice for 15 minutes. She was hospitalised and eventually lapsed into a persistent vegetative state.

Several months later, while being kept alive on a ventilator, her parents asked the hospital to discontinue active care, so that she could be allowed to die. The hospital refused, there were subsequent legal battles, and a tribunal eventually ruled in her parent’s favour. Quinlan was removed from the mechanical ventilation in 1976 – but she went on living in a persistent vegetative state until 1985 when she died of pneumonia.

Even today, Quinlan’s case raises important questions in moral theology, bioethics, euthanasia, legal guardianship and civil rights. Health care professionals say her case has had an impact on medical and legal practice worldwide.

Since Quinlan’s case, formal ethics committees now exist in hospitals, nursing homes and hospitals. Many say the development of advance health directives (living wills) occurred as a result of her case. In 1977, California legalised living wills, with other states soon following suit.

Quinlan’s case paved the way for legal protection of voluntary passive euthanasia.

Derek Humphry (born 1930), a British-born American journalist founded the Hemlock Society in Santa Monica, California. At the time it was the only group in the USA to provide information to terminally ill patients in case they wished to hastened death. The society also campaigned and contributed financially to drives to amend legislation. In 2003 Hemlock merged with End of Life Choices, changing their name to Compassion and Choices.

In 1990 the Supreme Court approved the use of non-active euthanasia.

Dr. Jack Kevorkian (1928), an American pathologist, right-to-die activist, painter, composer, and instrumentalist, was tried and convicted in 1992 for a murder displayed on TV. Kevorkian had already become infamous for encouraging and assisting people in committing suicide. Making claims to have assisted at least 130 patients to that end. He famously said that “dying is not a crime.”

Oregon 1994 – Oregon voters approved the Death with Dignity Act in 1994, allowing physicians to assist terminal patients who were not expected to survive more than six months. The US Supreme Court adopted such laws in 1997. In 2001 the Bush administration tried unsuccessfully to use drug law to stop Oregon in 2001, in the case Gonzales v. Oregon. Texas introduced non-active euthanasia legally in 1999.

Terri Schiavo case – a seven-year-long legal case which dealt with whether Terri Schiavo, a patient diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state for many years, could be disconnected from life support. In 1993, Michael Schiavo, her husband and guardian, asked the nursing home staff not to resuscitate her – however, the staff convinced him to withdraw the order.

In 1998, Michael petitioned the Sixth Circuit Court of Florida to remove her feeding tube under Florida Statutes Section 765.401(3). However, Robert and Mary Schindler (Terri’s parents) argued that she was conscious and opposed the petition. Michael eventually transferred his authority over the issue to the court. The court concluded that the patient would not wish to continue life-prolonging measures.

Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube was withdrawn on April 24, 2001, and reinserted some days later as legal decisions were made. This attracted the attention of the media. Subsequently that of politicians and advocacy groups, especially pro-life and disability rights groups.

Members of the Florida Legislature, the US Congress and even the President of the USA started talking about it. President Bush returned to Washington D.C from a vacation in March 2005 to sign legislation aimed at keeping Schiavo alive. This move turned the case into a national topic for most of the month.

The Schiavo case involved 14 appeals, several motions, petitions and hearings in the Florida courts, five suits in federal district court, Florida legislation was struck down by the Supreme Court of Florida, a subpoena by a congressional committee to qualify Schiavo for witness protection, and some other legal proceedings. Eventually, the local court’s decision to disconnect Schiavo from life support was acted upon on March 18th, 2005 – Schiavo died on March 31st.

Washington state – the Washington Initiative 1000 made Washington the 2nd state in the USA to legalise doctor-assisted suicide.

After reading this and most importantly The Euthanasia Argument – in detail, what are your thoughts? Leave a comment below!

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