Why has the euthanasia movement hidden or destroyed its history?
By Ian Dowbiggin
Imagine for a moment that reporters broke the news that the Vatican had destroyed the bulk of its archival records. Researchers around the world justifiably might accuse the Roman Catholic Church of a deliberate cover-up.
Well, the Vatican has done no such thing. But it appears as if the right-to-die movement has. If so, one might well ask; why did people in the movement do it? Are they trying to hide something about their past?
One thing is clear: if the euthanasia movement’s records have indeed been destroyed, a lot of history has vanished, Orwell-like, down a cavernous memory hole. And with it, information the right-to-die movement doesn’t want you to know.
I should know, because I saw these records and I know what was in them. I wrote up my findings in my 2003 book on the history of the movement, published by Oxford University Press.
The story of my involvement in these valuable records begins about fifteen years ago when I was given permission to explore the archives of what used to be called Partnerships for Caring, Inc. PFC was a successor organization to the defunct Euthanasia Society of America (ESA). The ESA records, housed in a law firm in Baltimore, consisted of 15 large cardboard boxes holding correspondence, financial records, press releases, published materials and minutes of meetings, much of it uncatalogued.
There were literally thousands of items in these boxes documenting the entire 20th c. history of the U.S. and non-American activists who advocated the legalization of various forms of euthanasia. The ESA archive contained materials relating to the careers of noteworthy social activists such as Derek Humphry, the founder of the Hemlock Society (now called Compassion and Choices), Joseph Fletcher, the founder of “situation ethics,” Alan Guttmacher (after whom the population-control Guttmacher Institute in New York City is named), and the birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger who, unbeknownst to all her biographers, was also a vocal proponent of legalized euthanasia.
Not only did these activists urge governments to permit voluntary mercy-killing and physician-assisted suicide, many also supported the involuntary mercy-killing of handicapped people. For example, despite his knowledge of widespread Nazi murder of people with disabilities, in 1943 the ESA’s president thought it was a good idea to legalize euthanasia in time for returning veterans who suffered from mental and physical wounds.
As recently as 2000, Derek Humphry proclaimed that because of escalating health care costs the elderly had a “duty to die.”
There was a good deal else in my book which would cause eye brows to arch in this day and age. The picture that emerged from my account was of a movement which harbored many people like the infamous “Dr. Death,” Jack Kevorkian, whose views on end-of-life care included the beliefs that experiments should be performed on dying persons and the mercy-killing of individuals whether or not they requested it was perfectly ethical.
The overlap between the eugenics and euthanasia movements was particularly eye-opening. For much of the twentieth century the same people who urged governments to permit mercy-killing and physician-assisted suicide typically applauded the courts and elected officials when they legalized the forced sterilization of people with disabilities.
My research did not always go smoothly. One right-to-die activist warned me that if I included anything he said to me over the phone he would sue me and my publisher. Clearly, the right-to-die movement did not like the contents of my book. Some in the movement must have regretted that I had gained access to their archives in the first place.
But the story did not end there. About five years after the book’s publication, I was contacted by a US graduate student researching the history of euthanasia. She told me that in trying to track down the ESA records she had been informed that the collection had been intentionally destroyed.
Just this year another US graduate student got in touch with me, also trying to locate the ESA archives. She too has been told the records no longer exist, although she is still investigating.
Of course, it might be that the ESA records are sitting somewhere safe and sound. Yet why do groups like Compassion and Choices ignore my own requests for information? Why, when a published scholar in the history of medicine enquires about the whereabouts of this important archive, is there a resounding silence?
Yet, if, as is highly likely, this magnificent archive is gone forever, one is perfectly entitled to call the right-to-die movement to account. What are they afraid of? The historical truth?
As a researcher, I am saddened and angry that such a treasure trove is likely gone forever. The scholarly community rightly protests when a similar destruction of historical records occurs. It’s time that its outrage was directed against the people who today tell us mercy-killing and doctor-assisted suicide are the latest “freedoms” you and I ought to enjoy.
In light of the disappearance of the ESA archives, can they be trusted?Ian Dowbiggin, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, teaches history at the University of Prince Edward Island. He is the author of A Merciful End: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America (2003) and A Concise History of Euthanasia (2006).