Weird History 'Death With Dignity' Has A Long And Storied History In The United States  

Genevieve Carlton
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For more than a century, states have wrestled with the idea of people's right to choose how they die. The first death with dignity act dates back to 1906, when it failed to pass in Ohio. It wasn't until the late '90s that the first state allowed terminally ill patients to take life-ending medication. In the right-to-die debate, public opinion has changed dramatically; in 1947, only 37% of Americans supported physician-assisted dying, but by 1993, 73% of respondents were in favor.

From the infamous Dr. Death to well-known cases of people choosing euthanasia, the right to death has sparked controversy for decades. People like Karen Ann Quinlan, Terri Schiavo, and Brittany Maynard made headlines across the country, driving political movements for new laws. In the year after 29-year-old Maynard chose to end her life after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, for example, more than half the states considered death with dignity acts. The long history of this movement shows how medical technology, individual rights, and morality intersect.

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Photo: Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-4.0

New Medicines Raised Questions About End-Of-Life Care

The 19th-century inventions of morphine and chloroform brought groundbreaking medical tools to treat pain. Doctors used the compounds to offer pain-free death, or even physician-assisted suicide. However, in 1885, the American Medical Association officially came out against euthanasia.

While morphine and chloroform could be used to relieve pain, the AMA opposed the idea of using them to expedite death.

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Photo: Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-4.0

The Euthanasia Society Invented Living Wills

In 1938, the Euthanasia Society of America formed with the goal of changing laws about assisted suicide. For three decades, the group attempted to promote death with dignity acts, with no success. In the 1960s, the society shifted its focus to the individual right to consent to or refuse medical treatment.

In 1967, they worked with a lawyer named Luis Kutner to develop the first living will, a document that lets someone state what medical treatment they want - or do not want - if they become incapacitated. At the time, a living will was an entirely new concept that advanced individual rights. By 1970, the Euthanasia Society distributed 60,000 living wills.

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Photo: The Sun/Library of Congress

Participating In An Assisted Suicide Could Mean Jail Time

For much of the 20th century, the legal rules surrounding death with dignity remained unclear. While some officials promoted changes to the law to allow a "painless death for incurables," as a headline in The Sun read in 1913, others pushed for harsh penalties for people who assisted in suicide.

In 1911, for example, a woman named Sadie Marchant struggled with a single lung and asked the Shaker colony where she lived to help her die. When two of the Shakers assisted Marchant, they were arrested for murder. While the case was ultimately dismissed, it indicated an uncertain legal status for anyone who participated in an assisted suicide.

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Photo:  Karen Ann: Biography of Karen Ann Quinlan/Proteus, US

A 1970s Case Put End-Of-Life Care In The Headlines

The 1976 case of Karen Ann Quinlan became the first of many headlining stories on the right to death with dignity. After Quinlan fell into a coma in 1975, her family filed a lawsuit to remove her respirator, arguing there was no chance of recovery. The case went to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which ruled in a unanimous decision that the individual right of privacy extended to removing life-support systems.

According to the decision, Quinlan's father should act in her interests, rather than letting doctors or a court decide. The ruling also held that criminal liability could not extend to the person who removed life support, because the death was "expiration from existing natural causes." Although the Quinlan family removed the young woman's respirator in 1976, she didn't die until 1985.