History of Euthanasia

About 400 B.C. - The Hippocratic Oath (By the "Father of Medicine' Greek physician Hippocrates)

"I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel"

Click here for full text of the Hippocratic Oath.


14th through 20th Century English Common Law (Excerpt is from the U. S. Supreme Court ruling in the 1997 Washington v. Glucksberg - opinion written by Chief Justice Rehnquist.)

"More specifically, for over 700 years, the Anglo American common law tradition has punished or otherwise disapproved of both suicide and assisting suicide."


19th Century United States (Excerpt is from the U. S. Supreme Court ruling in the 1997 Washington v. Glucksberg - opinion written by Chief Justice Rehnquist.)

That suicide remained a grievous, though nonfelonious, wrong is confirmed by the fact that colonial and early state legislatures and courts did not retreat from prohibiting assisting suicide. Swift, in his early 19th century treatise on the laws of Connecticut, stated that "[i]f one counsels another to commit suicide, and the other by reason of the advice kills himself, the advisor is guilty of murder as principal." 2 Z. Swift, A Digest of the Laws of the State of Connecticut 270 (1823). This was the well established common law view, see In re Joseph G., 34 Cal. 3d 429, 434-435, 667 P. 2d 1176, 1179 (1983); Commonwealth v. Mink, 123 Mass. 422, 428 (1877) ("`Now if the murder of one's self is felony, the accessory is equally guilty as if he had aided and abetted in the murder'") (quoting Chief Justice Parker's charge to the jury in Commonwealth v. Bowen, 13 Mass. 356 (1816)), as was the similar principle that the consent of a homicide victim is "wholly immaterial to the guilt of the person who cause[d] [his death]," 3 J. Stephen, A History of the Criminal Law of England 16 (1883); see 1 F. Wharton, Criminal Law 451-452 (9th ed. 1885); Martin v. Commonwealth, 184 Va. 1009, 1018-1019, 37 S. E. 2d 43, 47 (1946) (" `The right to life and to personal security is not only sacred in the estimation of the common law, but it is inalienable' "). And the prohibitions against assisting suicide never contained exceptions for those who were near death. Rather, "[t]he life of those to whom life ha[d] become a burden--of those who [were] hopelessly diseased or fatally wounded--nay, even the lives of criminals condemned to death, [were] under the protection of law, equally as the lives of those who [were] in the full tide of life's enjoyment, and anxious to continue to live." Blackburn v. State, 23 Ohio St. 146, 163 (1872); see Bowen, supra, at 360 (prisoner who persuaded another to commit suicide could be tried for murder, even though victim was scheduled shortly to be executed).


1828 - Earliest American statute explicitly to outlaw assisting suicide (Excerpt is from the U. S. Supreme Court ruling in the 1997 Washington v. Glucksberg - opinion written by Chief Justice Rehnquist.)

The earliest American statute explicitly to outlaw assisting suicide was enacted in New York in 1828, Act of Dec. 10, 1828, ch. 20, 4, 1828 N. Y. Laws 19 (codified at 2 N. Y. Rev. Stat. pt. 4, ch. 1, tit. 2, art. 1, 7, p. 661 (1829)), and many of the new States and Territories followed New York's example. Marzen 73-74. Between 1857 and 1865, a New York commission led by Dudley Field drafted a criminal code that prohibited "aiding" a suicide and, specifically, "furnish[ing] another person with any deadly weapon or poisonous drug, knowing that such person intends to use such weapon or drug in taking his own life." Id., at 76-77.


20th Century United States (Excerpt is from the U. S. Supreme Court ruling in the 1997 Washington v. Glucksberg - opinion written by Chief Justice Rehnquist.)

Though deeply rooted, the States' assisted suicide bans have in recent years been reexamined and, generally, reaffirmed. Because of advances in medicine and technology, Americans today are increasingly likely to die in institutions, from chronic illnesses. President's Comm'n for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research, Deciding to Forego Life Sustaining Treatment 16-18 (1983). Public concern and democratic action are therefore sharply focused on how best to protect dignity and independence at the end of life, with the result that there have been many significant changes in state laws and in the attitudes these laws reflect. Many States, for example, now permit "living wills," surrogate health care decisionmaking, and the withdrawal or refusal of life sustaining medical treatment. See Vacco v. Quill, post, at 9-11; 79 F. 3d, at 818-820; People v. Kevorkian, 447 Mich. 436, 478-480, and nn. 53-56, 527 N. W. 2d 714, 731-732, and nn. 53-56 (1994). At the same time, however, voters and legislators continue for the most part to reaffirm their States' prohibitions on assisting suicide.


1920 The book "Permitting the Destruction of Life not Worthy of Life" was published.

In this book, authors Alfred Hoche, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at the University of Freiburg, and Karl Binding, a professor of law from the University of Leipzig, argued that patients who ask for "death assistance" should, under very carefully controlled conditions, be able to obtain it from a physician. This book helped support involuntary euthanasia by Nazi Germany.


1935 The Euthanasia Society of England was formed to promote euthanasia.


1939 Nazi Germany (From "The History Place" web site)

"In October of 1939 amid the turmoil of the outbreak of war Hitler ordered widespread "mercy killing" of the sick and disabled. Code named "Aktion T 4," the Nazi euthanasia program to eliminate "life unworthy of life" at first focused on newborns and very young children. Midwives and doctors were required to register children up to age three who showed symptoms of mental retardation, physical deformity, or other symptoms included on a questionnaire from the Reich Health Ministry."

"The Nazi euthanasia program quickly expanded to include older disabled children and adults. Hitler's decree of October, 1939, typed on his personal stationery and back dated to Sept. 1, enlarged 'the authority of certain physicians to be designated by name in such manner that persons who, according to human judgment, are incurable can, upon a most careful diagnosis of their condition of sickness, be accorded a mercy death.'"

Click here to go to Questionnaire for Nazi Euthanasia Program (1939).

Click here to go to Nurses' Participation in the Nazi Euthanasia Programs .

Click here to go to Sermon Delivered by Bishop Clemens August Count of Galen on August 3, 1941.


1995 Australia's Northern Territory approved a euthanasia bill

It went into effect in 1996 and was overturned by the Australian Parliament in 1997.


1998 U.S. state of Oregon legalizes assisted suicide


1999 Dr. Jack Kevorkian sentenced to a 10-25 year prison term for giving a lethal injection to Thomas Youk whose death was shown on the "60 Minutes" television program.


2000 The Netherlands legalizes euthanasia.


2002 Belgium legalizes euthanasia.


2008 U.S. state of Washington legalizes assisted suicide


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