A Concise History of Euthanasia: Life, Death, God and Medicine by Ian Dowbiggin (Rowan and Littlefield, $25, 176 pages)

Reviewed by Alex Schadenberg
The Interim

If you do not know the history, you are doomed to relive the errors of the past.

Ian Dowbiggin, the chair of the history department at the University of P.E.I. and author of A Merciful End: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America, has published his second book on euthanasia, A Concise History of Euthanasia: Life, Death, God and Medicine.

A Concise History of Euthanasia offers exactly what its title promises, a brief, reader-friendly 176-page book that outlines the history of euthanasia from the time of antiquity to the present. Each chapter is concise and yet complete, and presented in a scholarly manner.

Dowbiggin begins by setting the stage concerning the current euthanasia debate. He recounts the stories of Maurice Genereaux, the Toronto physician who pleaded guilty to assisting a suicide in 1999. He then writes about Terri Schiavo and Jack Kevorkian, establishing the issues concerning the euthanasia debate.

Dowbiggin writes about the view of suicide and euthanasia in classical antiquity. He explains the thoughts and beliefs of ancient cultures in relation to how common suicide or euthanasia was in those times. He follows by explaining the realities that led to the creation of the Hippocratic Oath within the context of the “medical” practice of the time.

The concept of suicide and euthanasia was rejected in the Jewish culture. This is an important factor in the attitudes developed by the early Christians, who established a cultural opposition to suicide and euthanasia. Dowbiggin examines other world religions based on their historical support for, or opposition to, suicide and euthanasia.

The author methodically examines the prevailing thought and thinkers from the Middle Ages through the early modern period and into the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

He then looks at the origins of the modern euthanasia movement, which were rooted in the writings of Charles Darwin, Francis Galton and the early promoters of eugenics. In the 19th century, eugenics quickly became scientifically accepted, with new attitudes being developed toward racial purity and the concept of improving the human species. Eugenics supporters often thought “compassionately” killing people with disabilities was not only a service to the nation, but a service to the person who was killed.

From examining the intellectual progenitors of euthanasia, Dowbiggin moves into the early beginnings of the euthanasia movement throughout the world. He examines their founders, their supporters and their ideology. He recognizes their inter-connection to the eugenics movement, the feminist movement, the humanist movement and the Unitarian fellowship.

Dowbiggin does a good job explaining the early euthanasia cases and legislative attempts by the euthanasia movement at the beginning of the 20th century. Modern culture was changing and attitudes toward euthanasia were shifting toward a greater secularism and support for euthanasia.

Support for euthanasia seemed to grow after World War I and once again during the Depression. But after World War II, support for euthanasia plummeted, as people became aware of the German euthanasia program that killed perhaps as many as 400,000 Germans with disabilities or “defects.” The German euthanasia program was strongly denounced by Cardinal von Galen of Munster. Due to the opposition to euthanasia, Hitler moved many euthanasia doctors into the concentration camps, where the Holocaust would take place. Euthanasia did not actually stop in Germany until after the war ended.

The modern euthanasia movement, its actions and developments occupy the rest of the book. Even though Dowbiggin has written a concise history of euthanasia, it is a complete history. The European, American, Australian and other developments are recounted and explained. Nearly every important event is included.

What is evident from reading about the history of euthanasia is that the arguments to legalize “mercy” killing, and the attitudes that create sympathy for euthanasia, haven’t changed. Unless we recognize the errors from the past, we will repeat them in the future. Dowbiggin gives us the ammunition to effectively oppose the euthanasia movement.

A Concise History of Euthanasia: Life, Death, God and Medicine is a must read for anyone who is concerned about euthanasia, the sanctity of human life and attitudes toward people with disabilities. This book is readable, concise and affordable and written from an unbiased perspective.

Alex Schadenberg is the executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition. Copies of A Concise History of Euthanasia: Life, Death, God and Medicine can be ordered for $25 per copy, plus shipping and handling, by calling the EPC toll free at: