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Euthanasia: A Historical Overview (MJCLI, 1991)

Maryland Journal of Contemporary Legal Issues, 1991

…Following World War II, as the horrors of the Nazi euthanasia program and the Holocaust became undeniable, the Euthanasia Society of America made little progress and, indeed, was essentially quiescent until 1967.

That year, an educational arm of the Society evolved. Called the Euthanasia Education Council, it sought to initiate a more gradual and effective change in public attitudes toward death, dying, and euthanasia.1

The “living will”, introduced by Luis Kutner at a 1967 meeting of the Euthanasia Education Council, was chosen to serve as a vehicle for advancement of “passive” euthanasia and to intentionally blur critical distinctions between allowing death and deliberately causing death.

The phrases “death with dignity” and the “right to die” reignited the euthanasia debate. Acknowledgment of future steps was limited to conferences and publications directed only at those who subscribed to the aims of the Society. Describing the need to “walk before we can run”, the problems of “who shall speak for those who are incompetent or incapable of speaking for themselves” were to “wait until the general public accepts the fact that man has an inalienable right to die”.2

The word “euthanasia” was deliberately expunged from organizational titles, public debates and polls.

In 1975, the Euthanasia Society of America changed its name to the “Society for the Right to Die” and, in 1978, the Euthanasia Education Council became “Concern for Dying”.

A year later the Society for the Right to Die and Concern for Dying severed formal ties. “Self-determination” and patient autonomy became the focus of carefully calculated efforts to allay public anxiety about euthanasia and to subtly advance the movement.

Left to play “point man” in the fray was the relatively new California based Hemlock Society. Formed in 1980, Hemlock made no attempt to hide its goal of euthanasia-on-demand and “rational suicide”.

By comparison, Hemlock helped the older euthanasia organizations appear more mainstream and acceptable. 

The long-established euthanasia activist groups became known as advocates for “patients’ rights”. The legal right to request death, particularly by or on behalf of disabled persons, was argued in courtrooms, newsrooms, and on television screens across the country…

1. Euthanasia News, Nov 1975, at 3, col 2.
2. New York Academy of Medicine, Dilemmas Of Euthanasia: Excerpts From Papers And Discussions At The Fourth Euthanasia Conference 42 (1972).

[from “Euthanasia: A Historical Overview”,  Maryland Journal of Contemporary Legal Issues, p. 278, vol 2, issue 2, Summer 1991]