Does Science Sanction Euthanasia or Physician-Assisted Suicide?

Richard Weikart
From The Human Life Review Vol.2 No.2 Spring 2016

Ever since the Scientific Revolution, intellectuals have been struggling to figure out the limits of science. Some, such as Isaac Newton, used math and empirical science as powerful tools to understand the natural world, but did not consider them helpful in other spheres of knowledge, such as religion, morality, or politics. Later, however, David Hume, Auguste Comte, and others would insist that empirical science and math were the only valid sources of knowledge. They and many later positivists and materialists molded a comprehensive scientific worldview that provides answers about everything, including who we humans are and how we should live.

This extension of science to all domains of life—often called scientism by critics—has profound implications for the debate over euthanasia (for a more detailed discussion of this issue, see my new book, The Death of Humanity:And the Case for Life). During the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, several prominent thinkers believed that their scientific outlook should replace traditional notions of religion and morality, including the Christian prohibitions on suicide. In his posthumously published essay “On Suicide,” for instance, Hume argued that suicide should be permitted because human life, in his arresting words, “is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.”1 Hume failed to tell us what scientific experiment or empirical observation supported this assertion.

Though discussion about suicide began in earnest in the eighteenth century, the debate over euthanasia only surfaced in the late nineteenth century. Earlier. the word “euthanasia” had meant providing pain relief to dying patients, but by the late nineteenth century the meaning had shifted to a medical hastening of death. Many of the early proponents of this new understanding of euthanasia not only supported suicide and assisted suicide, but also favored killing people with disabilities without their consent. These early euthanasia advocates often appealed to science to justify their position.
In Germany the first serious proposal to kill people with disabilities came from Ernst Haeckel, a leading Darwinian biologist. In the 1870 edition of his 

Richard Weikart is professor of modern European history at California State University, Stanislaus, and author of The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life (Regnery Faith, April 2016), a book which examines and critiques many secular ideologies that have contributed to the decline of the Judeo-Christian sanctity-of-life ethic since the Enlightenment.

popular book on biological evolution, The Natural History of Creation, he proposed killing infants with disabilities. He worried that modern medicine and humanitarianism would allow the weak and sick to survive to reproduce, thus subverting humanity’s evolutionary progress. To prevent such an outcome, he suggested various eugenics proposals, including infanticide.2 By 1904, Haeckel was publicly supporting the killing of disabled adults. He thought decisions on who should be killed should be left to the physicians, not the patients.

3In 1870, the same year as Haeckel’s book, Samuel D. Williams wrote an  essay entitled “Euthanasia” for the Essays of the Birmingham Speculative Club, setting off the British debate over euthanasia. Despite the journal’s small circulation, Williams’ essay attracted attention and provoked discussion in other British journals in the 1870s. Like Haeckel, Williams wished to replace the Judeo-Christian sanctity-of-life ethic with a secular, scientific ethic. Both men stressed euthanasia’s beneficial role in the evolutionary struggle for existence. Williams pointed out that the struggle for survival in nature results in “the continuous crushing out of the weak, and the consequent maintenance of what is called ‘the vigour of the race.’” Since, according to Williams, death for the sickly was not only inevitable but also beneficial to society, he argued that “Man should ensure that the weak went to the wall in the most comfortable fashion.”4 Williams’ position was too radical for most Britons, and the medical profession of his time remained adamantly opposed to euthanasia. Only in 1901 did the first British physician publicly support assisted suicide and involuntary euthanasia for the disabled.

5 However, growing secularism, combined with the increasing acceptance of Darwinism, contributed to a climate that made euthanasia more acceptable. In an 1894 essay, British philosopher F.H. Bradley claimed that Darwinian theory had superseded Christian ethics. Bradley argued forthrightly against the sacredness of human life, the inherent rights of individuals, and the equality of human beings. He stated, “But when justice (as it must be) is dethroned, and when Darwinism (as it will be) is listened to, there will be a favorable hearing for the claims of ethical surgery.” By “ethical surgery” Bradley meant getting rid of those deemed unfit, since “The removal of diseased growths, of worse varieties, Darwinism insisted was obligatory.”

6The debate over euthanasia did not reach the United States until the 1890s. One of the most prominent early advocates of euthanasia in America was Robert Ingersoll, a flamboyant freethinking lawyer who campaigned ardently to replace Christianity with science. In 1894 he argued that assisted suicide should be permitted for those with terminal illnesses. Six years later physician William Duncan McKim wrote in his book Heredity and Human Progress that science militated against the “unreasonable dogma that all human life is intrinsically sacred.”

7What brought about this shift—a minority shift, but very significant nonetheless—in thinking about suicide, assisted suicide, and killing the disabled in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Ian Dowbiggin and Nick Kemp in their fine studies of the history of the euthanasia movement in the United States and Britain, respectively, both emphasize the role of secularization in general and Darwinian theory in particular in mediating this transformation. Dowbiggin states, “Trends such as eugenics, positivism, social Darwinism, and scientific naturalism had the effect of convincing a small yet articulate group in the early twentieth century that traditional ethics no longer applied to decisions about death and dying.” He concludes, “The most pivotal turning point in the early history of the euthanasia movement was the coming of Darwinism to America.”8 Kemp strongly supports Dowbiggin’s position, writing, “While we should be wary of depicting Darwin as the man responsible for ushering in a secular age we should be similarly cautious of underestimating the importance of evolutionary thought in relation to the questioning of the sanctity of human life.”

9Scholars studying the German euthanasia debates largely agree with Dowbiggin and Kemp. One of the leading experts on the pre-World War I euthanasia debates in Germany, Hans-Walther Schmuhl, explains, “By giving up the conception of the divine image of humans under the influence of the Darwinian theory, human life became a piece of property, which—in contrast to the idea of a natural right to life—could be weighed against other pieces of property.”10 Another leading scholar of the German euthanasia movement, Udo Benzenhöfer, devotes an entire chapter of his book on the history of euthanasia to tracing the impact of social Darwinism and eugenics on the budding euthanasia movement in the late nineteenth century.11

The American debate over euthanasia and infanticide erupted into public controversy in late 1915, when Chicago physician Harry Haiselden publicized the case of the Bollinger baby, who was born severely deformed. Haiselden convinced the parents not to request life-saving surgery, resulting in the baby’s death after five days. Haiselden then took his case for passive euthanasia to the American public by co-authoring and starring in The Black Stork, a fictionalized film version of the Bollinger case and of his belief that the defective should not be allowed to live. Initially, when the Bollinger controversy first erupted in 1915, Haiselden insisted that he supported only passive measures (such as withholding treatment), not active killing of infants. However, later he gave a lethal dose of medication to a microcephalic infant and increasingly supported active infanticide.12 Haiselden proclaimed that his support for euthanasia was simply a matter of exalting science above sentimentality. However, his view that people with disabilities were unfit and dangerous apparently dated from childhood. In his autobiography he related that as a boy he and some comrades beat up a helpless girl who had a mental disability. Not only did the adult Haiselden express no remorse for his youthful transgression, but he claimed his action was justifiable, because it was directed against “the menace in these wretched beings.”

13Haiselden’s contempt for people with disabilities was commonplace in the early eugenics movement, which was led by scientists and physicians who portrayed eugenics as scientific. Not everyone in the eugenics movement supported euthanasia (though some did), but four key ideas that permeated the eugenics movement provided fodder for the euthanasia movement:

1) More humans are procreated than can possibly survive;
2) Humans are biologically unequal and some are more valuable than others;
3) The human soul is entirely physical; and
4) Death of the so-called unfit is beneficial, because it produces evolutionary progress.

Eugenics and euthanasia proponents insisted that all four ideas were scientific rationales for killing people with disabilities.

In the first half of the twentieth century the euthanasia movement continued to gain adherents, resulting in the formation of the Voluntary Euthanasia Legalisation Society in Britain in 1935 and the Euthanasia Society of America in 1938. Most members of these two organizations were progressives with secular perspectives, such as H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Julian Huxley, and Margaret Sanger, though some were Unitarian or liberal Protestants, such as Harry Emerson Fosdick. Havelock Ellis, a prominent British physician who joined the Voluntary Euthanasia Legalisation Society, reflected a common attitude among euthanasia proponents when he asserted that the prohibition against infanticide was “one of the unfortunate results of Christianity.” He hoped to sweep away these allegedly benighted restrictions on killing the weak, since, “there is a place in humanity for murder, that is to say by killing the unfit.”14 Though both the American and the British euthanasia organizations officially campaigned only for assisted suicide, many of their members also supported involuntary euthanasia for people with disabilities.

More ominously, in Germany in 1933 Hitler came to power, heading a regime that was committed to a radical, racialized version of social Darwinism.  Not only did Hitler hope to rid the world of so-called inferior races, but he was equally hostile toward Germans deemed to be biologically inferior. In a major speech in 1929, Hitler strongly implied that he supported infanticide for people with disabilities.15 Many scientists and physicians—including many Americans—cheered when he passed legislation for compulsory sterilization of the “hereditarily diseased” in 1933. During the Third Reich biology instructors assured their students that this program was a scientific imperative. When Hitler authorized “mercy killing” of the disabled in 1939, which would result in the murder of about 200,000 disabled Germans by 1945, he did not have to twist the arms of German physicians. Karl Brandt, Hitler’s personal physician who was put in charge of the Nazi euthanasia operation, was a fanatical supporter of killing people with disabilities.16 Other Nazi physicians zealously supported this program. The physicians and staff at Hadamar were so enthusiastic about their mass murder of those with disabilities that they threw a party celebrating the death of their ten-thousandth victim. In one especially troubling case, the psychiatrist in charge of a German asylum continued killing inmates even after being liberated by the American army.17

Following the fall of Nazi Germany and widespread revulsion against the full gamut of its atrocities, euthanasia became a harder sell in Western societies. However, in the latter part of the twentieth century, support for various kinds of euthanasia picked up steam. Just as before, many euthanasia proponents justified their position by appealing to science. Peter Singer, one of the most influential bioethicists promoting involuntary euthanasia for people with disabilities, argues that science, especially Darwinian science, shows us that human life has no ultimate purpose, so we should “unsanctify human life” and permit euthanasia, both voluntary and involuntary. He asserts that biological life began “in a chance combination of gasses; it then evolved through random mutation and natural selection. All this just happened; it did not happen to any overall purpose.”18 Singer’s colleague, James Rachels, devoted an entire book to “argue that Darwin’s theory does undermine traditional values. In particular, it undermines the traditional idea that human life has a special, unique worth.”19 He thus relegated prohibitions on euthanasia to the misguided, pre-scientific past.

Many of the leading scientific materialists of our age call on science to sanction euthanasia. Agreeing with Singer and Rachels, the biologist Richard Dawkins has dismissed the pro-life position as “deeply un-evolutionary. ”Dawkins not only argues that euthanasia should be permitted, but has expressed the desire that others would kill him if he is ever “past it” (whatever that means).20 The materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett admits in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea not only that Darwinian science is toxic to religion, but that it implies that there are “gradations of value in the ending of human lives.” He also implies that killing disabled infants is morally acceptable.

The notion that science should dictate our entire worldview, including our morality, has a long pedigree and remains prominent today. Euthanasia proponents still regularly call on science to justify their view of human life and human death. That is why, in order to combat the euthanasia movement, we need to stress the limits of science. First and foremost, scientism is self-defeating, since one cannot scientifically prove that empiricism is the only path to knowledge. Scientism is not scientific, but rather a philosophical assumption. Further, though science produces marvelous benefits when properly targeted at the investigation of natural laws, it has little value when misapplied to trying to determine what is moral or what is beautiful. We should celebrate the expansion of true scientific knowledge and use that knowledge to benefit our lives. However, we should firmly reject the idea that science has anything to say to us about what we should do, how we should live, or when we should die.

NOTES1. David Hume, “On Suicide,” in Life, Death and Meaning: Key Philosophical Readings on theBig Questions, ed. David Benatar (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2004),291-92.2. Ernst Haeckel, Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte, 2nd edition (Berlin, 1870), 152-55; quote at155.3. Ernst Haeckel, Die Lebenswunder: Gemeinverständliche Studien über Biologische Philosophie(Stuttgart, 1904), 135-36. For further discussion of Haeckel’s position on euthanasia, see Rich-ard Weikart, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 146-48.4. N. D. A. Kemp, ‘Merciful Release’: The History of the British Euthanasia Movement (Manches-ter: Manchester University Press, 2002), 11-21, quotes at 20.5. Kemp, ‘Merciful Release,’ 35-36.6. F. H. Bradley, “Some Remarks on Punishment,” International Journal of Ethics 4 (1894): 269-84; quotes at 276, 278.7. Ian Dowbiggin, A Merciful End: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America (Oxford, 2003),1, 10-12, 20-21.8. Dowbiggin, A Merciful End, 2, 8.9. Kemp, ‘Merciful Release,’ 3, quote at 19.10. Hans Walter Schmuhl, Rassenhygiene, Nationalsozialismus, Euthanasie: Von der Verhütungzur Vernichtung ‘lebensunwerten Lebens’ 1890-1945 (Göttingen, 1987), 18-19, quote at 106.11. Udo Benzenhöfer, Der gute Tod?Euthanasie und Sterbehilfe in Geschichte und Gegenwart(Munich, 1999), ch. 4; on the connections between Darwinism and euthanasia, see also Weikart,From Darwin to Hitler, ch. 8.12. Martin S. Pernick, The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of “Defective” Babies in AmericanMedicine and Motion Pictures since 1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 3-6, 887.13. Pernick, Black Stork, 95-98.14. Kemp, ‘Merciful Release,’ 88, 109.15. Hitler, “Appell an die deutsche Kraft”(4 August 1929), in Hitler: Reden, Schriften, Anordnungen,THE HUMAN LIFE REVIEW
36/SPRING 20163: 348-49; for more on Hitler’s position on euthanasia, see Richard Weikart, Hitler’s Ethic: TheNazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 179-87.16. Ulf Schmidt, Karl Brandt (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007).17. For more on the Nazi euthanasia program, see Michael Burleigh, Death and Deliverance: Eu-thanasia in Germany, 1900-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) and HenryFriedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (ChapelHill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).18. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 331.19. James Rachels, Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism (Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press, 1990), 4.20. Richard Dawkins, “The Word Made Flesh,” Guardian (December 27, 2001); Dawkins alsodiscusses these views in “Gaps in the Mind,” in The Great Ape Project: Equality beyond Hu-manity, eds. Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), 80-87v