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Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide - The Modern Euthanasia Movement

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A few proposals to legalize euthanasia were made in the United States and Germany during the latter portion of the nineteenth century. However, it was not until after World War I that euthanasia advocacy began in earnest. In 1920, two highly respected German academics, Karl Binding, a law professor, and Alfred Hoche, a physician, wrote Permission to Destroy Life Unworthy of Life, which advocated euthanasia as a compassionate "healing treatment." The authors argued that mercy killing should be permitted for three categories of patients upon request of competent patients or the families of the incompetent: the terminally ill or mortally wounded, people who were unconscious, and disabled people—particularly those with cognitive impairments. The book, which may have coined the term "right to die," also promoted euthanasia of cognitively disabled people as a way of saving societal resources.

Binding and Hoche's book generated tremendous interest among Germany's intelligentsia and the public, which quickly came to support legalization of euthanasia. Euthanasia was popular enough in 1933 for Adolph Hitler to attempt to formally legalize the practice. However, strong opposition from the churches caused the German government to drop the proposal.

Euthanasia was also advocated in the United States during the 1930s. In 1938, the New York Times announced the formation of a national euthanasia society that eventually became known as the Euthanasia Society of America. In 1939, the group had drafted a proposed law permitting voluntary euthanasia. Dr. Foster Kennedy, the group's president, also called for the legalization of euthanasia for babies born with birth defects. The incipient euthanasia movement in the United States grew quiescent in the aftermath of the Holocaust as the world recoiled in horror to the news that between 1939 and 1945, German doctors killed more than 200,000 disabled people, including infants and the mentally retarded people.

After the war, organized euthanasia groups continued to exist in the United States but made little headway until the early 1980s, when societal changes that began in the 1960s and the resulting weakening of traditional moral values, as well as intellectual support by some within the medical intelligentsia, provided fertile ground for renewed euthanasia advocacy. In a dramatically short period of time, legalized euthanasia went from an "unthinkable" prospect to one of the most contentious and controversial issues debated in the public square.

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