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American Euthanasia Society "Disappears" Its Records

Here's an interesting little tidbit via Wesley J. Smith. An historian named Ian Dowbiggin wrote a book over ten years ago (2003) about the history of the euthanasia movement. I gather his portrayal was not altogether complimentary, though the description and reviews indicate a fairly objective stance toward the subject.

Now it appears that the archives Dowbiggin used for that book--documents, bills, etc., kept by a law firm in cardboard boxes, including the records of the American Euthanasia Society--have been intentionally destroyed.

Some quotes from Dowbiggin:

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.


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.

So it looks like they did something about it.

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.

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.

Don't hold your breath for that outrage, Dr. Dowbiggin.

It seems plausible to me that what the euthanasia movement had to hide in those records is precisely what Dowbiggin points out--evidence of "choice devours itself." Evidence of support for non-voluntary eugenics and euthanasia, especially for the disabled, from the movement's "heroes" of the past.

Of course, to some extent Dowbiggin has evidently already let the cat out of the bag in his book (which I have not read). But one can always hope that such things will be forgotten, and the last thing they want is some snoopy graduate student coming along now and publishing quotes from some more letters that might tarnish the movement's reputation.

Whenever I hear someone talking about "voluntary" euthanasia and "voluntary" sterilization, my antennae twitch, and yours should too. Not that being voluntary makes something right. But advocacy for these things seldom stops at "voluntary," if only because life is messy and there will always be people whom they think should be killed or sterilized who are either too disabled or otherwise disinclined to ask for it, who need to be urged, bribed, or "taken care of" without their knowledge or consent.

Dowbiggin strikes me, based on his article, as a genuine historian and not as a pro-life activist. But it is not surprising that the goals of a genuine historian would conflict with the goals of pro-death activists. Dowbiggin may be one of that vanishing breed of "good liberals" who sincerely want the truth to be known and who grapple from a humanist standpoint with right and wrong in medical ethics, even if they are uncomfortable taking a full-fledged pro-life stance. (Not having read his book, I am guessing.) It behooves those of us who are active on the pro-life side to keep track of these last, few representatives of a dying worldview, for as humanism has given way to anti-humanism in the world around us, they are some of our best allies.

Comments (1)

Hey Lydia, on a different subject, there is now a bill that would abolish the Selective Service. It deserves a wide base of support.


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