Weird History

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

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

From the infamous Dr. Death to well-known cases of people choosing assisted self-end, the RTD 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 DWD acts. The long history of the DWD movement shows how medical technology, individual rights, and morality intersect.

  • New Medicines Raised Questions About End-Of-Life Care
    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 a pain-free passing or even PAS. However, in 1885, the American Medical Association officially came out against mercy termination.

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

  • The Euthanasia Society Invented Living Wills
    Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-4.0

    The Euthanasia Society Invented Living Wills

    In 1938, the Euthanasia Society of America (ESA) formed with the goal of changing laws about assisted terminations. For three decades, the group attempted to promote DWD acts, with no success. In the 1960s, the ESA 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 ESA distributed 60,000 living wills.

  • Participating In An Assisted Suicide Could Mean Jail Time
    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 DWD 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 terminations.

    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 pass. When two of the Shakers assisted Marchant, they were apprehended for murder. While the case was ultimately dismissed, it indicated an uncertain legal status for anyone who knowingly assisted in the life-ending process.

  • A 1970s Case Put End-Of-Life Care In The Headlines
    Photo: Bettman Collection / Getty

    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 choosing RTD. 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 passing was "expiration from existing natural causes." Although the Quinlan family removed the young woman's respirator in 1976, she didn't pass until 1985.