‘Merciful Release’: The History of the British Euthanasia Movement by N.D.A. Kemp (Manchester University Press, $74.95 (US), 288 pages).

Review by
Ian R. Dowbiggin
The Interim

It seems that hardly a day goes by without euthanasia making front-page news. Taken from the Greek word for “good death,” euthanasia is one of the most contentious, hot-button issues today. Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands have recently legalized either actual mercy-killing or physician-assisted suicide. Here in North America, whether it’s the killing of Tracy Latimer, the assisted suicide of Sue Rodriguez or the life of Terry Schiavo currently hanging in the balance, euthanasia haunts the moral consciences of countless Canadians and Americans.

To euthanasia advocates today, the issue is simple. Legalizing a right to die means extending a fundamental personal liberty to individual citizens. A right to die, so the argument goes, will free people so they can exert control over their own deaths, thereby minimizing the mental and physical pain that often accompanies dying.

But should we believe the right-to-die movement? Does society have nothing to fear, and everything to gain, by granting individuals a right to die?

If history is any guide, the answer to these questions is a resounding “no.”

We know this, thanks to books like Nicholas Kemp’s “Merciful Release”: The History of the British Euthanasia Movement. Kemp demonstrates convincingly that the movement in favour of legalizing euthanasia in the British Isles shared many disturbing similarities with the German euthanasia movement, which infamously culminated in the Nazi medical murder during World War II of roughly 200,000 handicapped men, women and children. In Germany, support for Hitlerian euthanasia began long before the Nazis came to power in 1933. For years, physicians and scientists had engaged in lengthy debates over whose life was more biologically fit and most useful to the community. Discussions over which groups were socially productive and which weren’t had the effect of defining down the value of human life. It became easier to propose that the “unfit” (meaning the disabled and sick) should not only be prevented from breeding, they should also be put to death for the welfare of society and for their own good.

Kemp’s book reveals that, even though nothing remotely resembling Nazi medical murder ever occurred in Britain, a similar debate unfolded there, beginning in the late 19th century. As in Germany, the relationship between the eugenics and euthanasia movements was strong. Eugenics, taken from the Greek word for “well born,” was a term coined in 1883 by Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton. Eugenics referred to public policies designed to encourage the biologically fit to marry and discourage the biologically unfit from reproducing.

By the early 20th century, eugenics had swept across most of the industrialized countries, shaping the views of society’s elites, especially the academic and medical worlds. Eugenic thinking led 30 American states and two Canadian provinces (Alberta and British Columbia) to pass sterilization laws aimed at preventing the mentally and physically handicapped from breeding. The most notorious example of eugenics was in Nazi Germany, where in 1933 the Third Reich introduced a law that permitted the involuntary sterilization of about 400,000 Germans.

In England, as in America and Germany, there was a striking overlap in membership between eugenics and euthanasia groups. The founder of the British Voluntary Euthanasia Legalization Society, the first such organization in history, was C. Killick Millard, a militant eugenicist. Other prominent pro-eugenic VELS members were the playwright George Bernard Shaw, the science fiction author H.G. Wells and the sexologist Havelock Ellis. A host of lesser-known figures strengthened the eugenics-euthanasia link. Because British eugenicists believed that some lives were more valuable than others, they were often supportive of the notion that some lives were not worth living. In the words of German proponents of euthanasia, patients in state asylums, for example, were “useless eaters,” and many of their British and American counterparts agreed.

Unsurprisingly, with such a strong eugenic element in the VELS, there was plenty of sympathy for euthanasia without consent. Groups targeted for involuntary euthanasia included not just inmates of public charity institutions, but also congenitally disabled infants. They were a “prey on normal people,” said one British euthanasia advocate in 1934, and deserved to be put out of their misery for the good of everyone concerned.

Sentiments such as these were rarely expressed by VELS members after World War II. As news of Nazi crimes against humanity spread, expressions in favor of any form of involuntary euthanasia became taboo. But support for euthanasia of people incapable of giving informed consent lingered within the VELS long after the Third Reich was defeated. In 1980, the VELS was rocked by scandal when two of its leading figures were convicted of assisting the suicides of individuals suffering from alcoholism and clinical depression.

The British euthanasia movement tried and failed six times – in 1936, 1950, 1969, 1985, 1991, and 1994 – to get Parliament to pass a voluntary euthanasia bill. But opinion polls in Britain (and elsewhere) still record majorities in favor of permitting individuals to request medical assistance in dying. Heart-rending stories, such as the recent Diane Pretty case, rarely fail to unleash public sympathy. What the future holds is anyone’s guess.

But the history of the euthanasia movement in Britain, America, and Germany reveals that right-to-die activists are extremely resourceful and clever when it comes to getting their message across. History also cautions us that many euthanasia advocates harbour secret agendas. Thanks to books like Kemp’s, we should be highly skeptical of what the right-to-die movement tells us. We now know that beneath all the talk of personal autonomy and individual rights, there lurks a sinister undercurrent that will not stop at legalizing merely elective euthanasia. As the saying goes, those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.