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Euthanasia History

A basic knowledge of the history of the movement to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide—the so-called “right to die” movement—is essential for anyone who hopes to defeat the evil of imposed death.

Debates about the ethics of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide date from ancient Greece and Rome. In the 4th Century BC, the Hippocratic Oath was written by Hippocrates, the father of medicine. In part, the Oath states:

To please no one will I prescribe a deadly drug nor give advice which may cause his death. Nor will I give a woman a pessary [device] to procure abortion.

For 2400 years, physicians made these solemn promises. Until very recently (the last 30 years or so) the Hippocratic Oath was taken by all new physicians. It was a rite of passage.

The following history lesson will explain why most physicians do not swear the Hippocratic Oath today—which is very dangerous for their patients.

1938: Euthanasia Society of America (ESA) was founded in New York.

Goal: to gain social and legal acceptance for the “right” to kill vulnerable human beings (people the organization called “mental defectives” and “incurables”).

1939: ESA made its first attempt to legalize euthanasia.

  • Legislative proposal for “voluntary” euthanasia—ESA believed the public was “readier to recognize the right to die than the right to kill, even though the latter be in mercy.” (ESA pamphlet Merciful Release.)
  • ESA hoped eventually to legalize the “putting to death of ‘non-volunteers’ beyond the help of medical science.” (Charles Nixdorff, attorney and ESA treasurer)
  • After many failed attempts to legalize euthanasia, followed by a period of little activity, ESA changed tactics.

1967: ESA leaders realized that, to be successful, they first had to change both medical ethics and public morals. They launched a massive educational campaign.

  • Established the Euthanasia Educational Council.
  • Introduced the Living Will (first Advance Directive form) as the “foot in the door” for social and legal acceptance of euthanasia.

1968 and 1973: Rep. Walter S. Sackett, MD, introduced unsuccessful “right to die” legislation in Florida.

  • Cost-saving measure which Dr. Sackett said would save billions of dollars “if the state’s mongoloids [people with Down syndrome] were permitted to succumb to pneumonia.”
  • Opposed by advocates for mentally retarded children and the FL Catholic Conference.

1973: In Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that all state and federal laws against abortion violated a “constitutional right to privacy.” Nowhere is such a right written in the Constitution of the United States.

1974Joseph Fletcher (1905-1991), took over as president of ESA and served for the next two years.

  • Best known as the Father of Situation Ethics, he was a professor and Episcopal priest who later renounced his belief in God.
  • Fletcher’s mantra: “What has taken place in birth control is equally important in death control.” (American Journal of Nursing, 1973)

SITUATION ETHICS: Based on the notion that there are no fixed moral laws (e.g., the Ten Commandments) which are to be obeyed at all times, Situation Ethics’ basic tenet is that the ends justify the means. For example, when one initially establishes that murder is morally wrong, one may then make exceptions for killing unwanted preborn children, people who are suffering, the elderly or handicapped who are a burden on others, etc.

1975: ESA changed its name to the Society for the Right to Die (SRD)—concerned that the word “euthanasia” (reminiscent of the Nazi killing program) might be hindering their success.

1976: SRD had two groundbreaking successes.

  1. California “Natural Death Act” became law.
    • Living Wills (the first Advance Directives for Health Care) were now legal documents in one state and the push was on to legalize them in every state.
    • The original Living Will was a directive to physicians by which the signer refused medical treatment in the event he or she had a “terminal condition” and was deemed incapable of making decisions.
    • The Living Will blurred the distinction between allowing a person to die naturally and intentionally causing death.
  2. The New Jersey Supreme Court decided the first “right to die” case.

Karen Ann Quinlan, a young woman with severe brain damage, was on a ventilator for several months. Her parents wanted the ventilator removed so Karen would die, but the hospital refused to do so. The court ruled in favor of her parents, on the basis of a “constitutional right of privacy,” arguing that this unwritten right “is broad enough to encompass a patient’s decision to decline medical treatment under certain circumstances, in much the same way as it is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision to terminate pregnancy under certain conditions.”

This case set several dangerous precedents, including:

  • First court ever to recognize a “right to die.”
  • The court implied that the decision of another person to refuse treatment for an incompetent patient was the same as “a patient’s decision.” Theologian Paul Ramsey prophetically declared that this step went “a long way toward obliterating the distinction between voluntary and involuntary euthanasia and weakening legal protection from involuntary euthanasia.” (Ethics and the Edges of Life, Yale University Press, 1978.)

Although Karen was removed from the ventilator in 1976, she lived on for almost a decade until her death from untreated pneumonia in 1985.

1980The Hemlock Society was founded by Derek Humphry, a British journalist who had moved to the U.S., and his second wife Ann Wickett. In 1975, Humphry “helped” his first wife kill herself by poisoning her morning coffee and then wrote a book about it—Jean’s Way.

  • Hemlock’s purpose: To promote death-on-demand without restrictions.
  • Named after the poison hemlock which the ancient Greeks used for state-assisted suicide. The Roman Libaneous’ report regarding the city-state of Athens:

Whoever no longer wishes to live shall state his reasons to the Senate, and after having received permission shall abandon life. If your existence is hateful to you, die; if you are overwhelmed by fate, drink the hemlock;…

1980The World Federation of Right to Die Societies (WFRTDS) was established to link all “organizations working to secure or protect the rights of individuals to self-determination at the end of their lives.”

1984: At a WFRTDS conference, Dr. Helga Kuhse (Australia) outlined the strategy of euthanasia-promoting organizations:

If we can get people to accept the removal of all treatments and care, especially the removal of food and fluids, they will see what a painful way this is to die, and then, in the patient’s best interest, they will accept the lethal injection.

1985: In February, about 300 people from all over the U.S. gathered at the Second National Voluntary Euthanasia Conference, entitled “Good Life, Good Death through Control and Choice.” Sponsored by the Hemlock Society, the conference addressed many issues, among them:

  • How can active euthanasia be brought about? Illegally (plastic bag with light sedation suggested to protect the prescribing doctor) and legally (tactics to legalize it were discussed).
  • Who should make the decision for active euthanasia for an incompetent patient?
  • Does providing a person with information on how to commit suicide constitute a crime?
  • Should children have the right to choose euthanasia or suicide?


Dr. Colin Brewer, a London psychiatrist, addressed the American participants at the conference. He compared attitudes on euthanasia, abortion and contraception and explained how to coerce doctors into cooperating. While there are British doctors who do not approve contraception, he said, “First we ask if they will provide contraception and we won’t pay them unless they do. It’s amazing how quickly they change their minds.”

Another speaker, Doris Portwood-Evans, author of Common Sense Suicide: The Final Right, said, “There is fantastic economic pressure to cut down on the money for health care for the old, and this has its advantages because it will lead to the promotion of euthanasia.”

1986: At a conference entitled “A New Ethic for the New Medicine,” the American Medical Association’s Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs issued this policy:

Even if death is not imminent, but a patient’s coma is beyond doubt irreversible, it is not unethical to discontinue all means of life-prolonging medical treatment [including] medication and artificially or technologically supplied respiration, nutrition and hydration.

1987: 32-year-old Nancy Ellen Jobes was killed by dehydration after the NJ Supreme Court upheld lower court decisions that family members may refuse medical care—including tube-feeding—without clear evidence of a patient’s wishes. (Two neurologists had found Nancy to be aware, responsive, and purposeful.) SRD participated in this case as well as all other early “right to die” court cases.

1988: Americans Against Human Suffering (AAHS)—formed by the Hemlock Society in 1986 to seek legalization of “physician-aid-in-dying” (euphemism for PAS)—failed to gather enough signatures to place its assisted suicide initiative on the California ballot.

1989: The Hemlock Society moved from California to Oregon, planning to eventually place a PAS initiative on the Oregon ballot.

NOTE: The “right to die” movement has two main goals:

  1. Gain social and legal acceptance for euthanasia by omission (removal of all medical treatment and care, particularly food and fluids) and action (lethal injection) whether or not the patient has expressed a wish to die.
  2. Legalize physician-assisted suicide.

1990In Michigan, Jack Kevorkian, an unemployed pathologist with a fascination with death, hooked up Janet Adkins to his “self-execution machine.” Adkins was a 54-year-old Oregon woman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Criminal charges against him were dropped, but a judge ordered him not to use the machine again. Thumbing his nose at the legal system, Kevorkian embarked on a killing spree.

1990U.S. Supreme Court decided its first “right to die” case, Cruzan v. Missouri Department of Health. The court concluded that “a State may apply a clear and convincing evidence standard in proceedings where a guardian seeks to discontinue nutrition and hydration of a person diagnosed to be in a persistent vegetative state.” A lower court had found no clear and convincing evidence of Nancy Cruzan’s wishes. Nevertheless, 33-year-old Nancy was dehydrated to death after a lower court found new evidence—an alleged conversation she had 12 years prior—to be clear and convincing.

NOTE: Nancy Cruzan was fed by mouth and could swallow after the car accident/near drowning that caused her brain damage. A feeding tube was inserted for convenience.

*See also Cruzan v. Missouri Department of Health

1990Congress enacted the “Patient Self-Determination Act” which forces all healthcare facilities and programs to promote Advance Directives for Health Care. Non-compliance will be penalized by loss of federal funds such as Medicare reimbursements. (Money talks.)

1991The Society for the Right to Die became “Choice In Dying,” continuing to promote “end-of-life choices” and Living Wills.

1991Washington voters rejected “Death With Dignity” (another euphemism for PAS) initiative put on the ballot by the Hemlock Society.

1991Derek Humphry published Final Exit, a how-to commit suicide (“self-deliverance”) book. It topped the USA bestseller list and made further news when it was found at the bedside of several suicide victims.

1992Americans for Death With Dignity (formerly AAHS) put a PAS initiative on California ballot. Voters rejected it.

1993Compassion In Dying (CID) was founded in Washington State to counsel the terminally ill and help them with “personal assistance” to hasten death.

1994The Oregon “Death With Dignity Act” was narrowly approved by voters. However, it did not go into effect for several years because of legal battles. A major disappointment for the “right to die” movement has been its failure to gain acceptance of PAS in other states in spite of monumental efforts.

See also “Assisted Suicide in Practice”

1994Every state now had enacted some type of Advance Directive law—a major victory for the “right to die” movement.

1998Michigan passed a law making assisted suicide a crime. (Many other states have passed similar laws.)

1999After assisting the deaths of at least 130 people, Kevorkian was convicted of one count of second-degree murder and sentenced to 10-25 years behind bars. He had videotaped himself injecting lethal drugs into Thomas Youk, a man with Lou Gehrig’s disease. It was a clear-cut case of active euthanasia, not assisted suicide. CBS’s 60 Minutes aired the video, which was then used as evidence against Kevorkian.

2000Choice In Dying (ESA, SRD) dissolved itself and transferred its programs and staff to Partnership for Caring (PFC).

2003The Hemlock Society changed its name to End-of-Life Choices, and PFC merged with Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Last Acts program to form Last Acts Partnership. Last Acts gave its last gasp in 2004, after nearly 66 years of working to change medical ethics and public morals in America. (ESA was founded in 1938.)

2004: In November, Compassion In Dying (now headquartered in Oregon, helping people avail themselves of legal PAS) and End-Of-Life Choices (formerly the Hemlock Society, headquartered in Denver, Colorado) merged to become Compassion & Choices.

Are you confused yet? It is very hard to follow all the name changes. It is enough to simply remember that these groups keep changing their names to give themselves face lifts. Just like old movie stars, they do so to improve their outward appearance, but inwardly they are the same old groups with the same old goals.

2005On March 31, Terri Schiavo died of dehydration in a Florida hospice. Heroic efforts to save her life failed to halt Judge George Greer’s cruel order that Terri be denied all food and water until dead.

2006Gonzales v. Oregon: Supreme Court rules in favor of Oregon’s Physician Assisted Suicide law; law upheld as constitutional.

2008: Washington state residents vote in favor of the Washington Death with Dignity Law by a margin of 51% to 49%.

2009: The Montana Supreme Court affirmed 4-3 in the case of Baxter v. State of Montana that physician-assisted suicide is not “against public policy” in Montana.

2013Vermont becomes the fourth state with a Death with Dignity Law on May 20.

2014: On January 13 a New Mexico judge rules in favor of physicians who help competent terminally ill patients end their lives, thus prohibiting prosecution of such physicians.

201429-year-old Brittany Maynard dies on November 2 by her own hand after moving from California to Oregon where her “right to die” was protected by law. Maynard was and is the focal point of advertising that promotes physician-assisted suicide.