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Studies in Law and Medicine

The ‘Small Beginnings’ of Euthanasia: Examining the Erosion in Legal Prohibitions Against Mercy Killing

Americans United for Life published “Studies in Law and Medicine” in the 1970s and 1980s, spotlighting issues pertaining to the human right to life across the bioethics spectrum. As Americans United for Life celebrates our 50th anniversary, we are making these issues available for the first time since their print publication.

The ‘Small Beginnings’ of Euthanasia: Examining the Erosion in Legal Prohibitions Against Mercy Killing by C. Everett Knop, M.D., Sc.D. and Edward R. Grant, J.D.

This article originated in a lecture delivered by the Surgeon General on January 21, 1986 at the Thomas J. White Center of the University of Norte Dame Law School. At the time, killing by physicians was the stuff of sensational news reports originating in the Netherlands. No American court had yet allowed passive euthanasia through the withdrawal of nourishment. And only one organization, the Hemlock Society, was actively promoting legalized direct killing by physicians. However, Dr. Koop impressed upon his audience that changes in American law, originating in the Quinlan case, has brought us perilously close to a position where advocating euthanasia would face few genuine legal barriers to their goal. 

Despite its compelling passion, many can remain aloof from personal involvement in the abortion debate. This will not be so in the case of euthanasia. If legal prohibitions continue to erode, every nurse, every physician, every adult responsible for an aging parent or desperately ill child, may face the option of whether to be directly responsible for the death of another human being. Such a bleak prospect can be avoided only if the public, and their leaders, recognize the dangers submerged under the slogans of “death with dignity,” and the “right to die.” 

Opposition to the “euthanasia juggernaut” (Dr. Koop’s term) must begin with a rigorous understanding of how we got to our present predicament, and how to avoid arguments and strategies which will prove counterproductive. Despite the changed of the past three years, the legal doctrines, legislation, and case law analyzed in this study remain those which govern much of the current debate.