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Journal of Policy History 14.3 (2002) 223-260

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"A Rational Coalition":
Euthanasia, Eugenics, and Birth Control in America, 1940-1970

Ian Dowbiggin

In 1940, at the second annual meeting of the Euthanasia Society of America (ESA), its first president, Charles Francis Potter (1885-1962), rose to give a speech. "Euthanasia, or merciful release from suffering," Potter declared, "is rapidly emerging from the stage when it was considered merely the obsession of a few left-wing social reformers to the period when it is being recognized as an important social measure in the same class with birth control and eugenics." Almost thirty years later, at another ESA gathering, clergyman Henry Pitney Van Dusen said much the same thing. "Popular attention centers on the Planned Parenthood movement at the other end of life," Van Dusen declared, and "[e]uthanasia is concerned with the responsible termination of life. The more we can relate these two movements practically the better, because they are both concerned with the responsible care of human life, one at its beginning and the other at its end." 1

These two speeches, highlighting an important yet neglected continuity within twentieth-century U.S. social reform, were fairly typical expressions of an attitude shared by numerous prominent Americans. In the era between the Great Depression and Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down state laws [End Page 223] criminalizing abortion, Americans such as Potter, Margaret Sanger, Robert Latou Dickinson, Joseph Fletcher, Alan Guttmacher, and Paul Blanshard, viewed euthanasia, eugenic sterilization, and birth control as kindred causes. 2 With the arrival of the distinctive cultural climate of the 1960s and its emphasis on privacy, civil rights, and a woman's reproductive right to choose, as well as a declining faith among social scientists in hereditarian explanations of disease, support for eugenic sterilization plummeted. Defenders of euthanasia also tended to redefine the right to die as the freedom to forgo treatment rather than the right to request active assistance in a speedy death.

However, in hindsight what stands out is the way mid-twentieth-century American social activists believed that "birth control" and "death control" formed "a rational coalition," two aspects of the same crusade to liberate human beings from afflictions that had plagued human history for centuries. 3 These reformers were united in their commitment to fight for "the right not to suffer," whether because of excessive fertility, deferred sexual gratification, or a lingering, painful death. 4

This article argues two central points: first, scholars should begin viewing the histories of euthanasia, eugenic sterilization, and birth control in the United States less as separate narratives and more as a single, broad chronicle of events inextricably linked to the history of one current within twentieth-century American liberalism. For the most part, historians have overlooked how intimately and regularly the American euthanasia, eugenics, and birth control movements intersected during the middle third of the twentieth century. 5 In recent years a handful of scholars have cited the ties among the American eugenics movement, the campaign to decriminalize birth control, and the growing toleration of euthanasia for "defective" babies and geriatric patients. 6 But these scholars have tended to focus on the pre-World War II period, and even then they have not fully recognized the close interrelationship among all three currents. 7

This article also argues that the belief that eugenics, euthanasia, and birth control had a great deal in common was nurtured by the volatile cultural and political climate of the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, an environment punctuated by a tense debate over the power of the Roman Catholic Church. As John McGreevy has argued, many liberals during this period shared a deep concern that because of a robust Catholicism, democracy, national unity, and [End Page 224] personal freedom in America were in jeopardy as never before. This article confirms McGreevy's thesis that Catholicism occupied a highly important place in "the American intellectual imagination," and demonstrates that support for euthanasia and birth control was an important principle...


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