Monday, October 12, 2009

Benjamin and Gumpert Make Their Cases on Euthanasia, 1950.

My searches have brought up an article at The Nation on euthanasia that dates to January 1950 and that gives Harry Benjamin and Martin Gumpert.

Benjamin was a German-born doctor who was interested in sexuality, transsexuality (he pioneered the term transsexual after being invited by Kinsey to advise on a patient) and gerontology. He lived to the age of 101. Gumpert was also a German-born physician. He was know for his advisement of Thomas Mann on the course of syphilis for one of Mann's books.

Benjamin supports euthanasia:

Bigots and sticklers for legal technicalities will always try to prevent or punish humanitarian action by an individual physician. Since the decision rests with him alone, the doctor will rarely ask for the consent of either the patient or the relatives. The mercy killing is therefore done furtively, when it should be done candidly, serenely, and law-fully.


Euthanasia has been called "pagan" and "indecent." One may well ask, which is better-pagan mercifulness, indecent compassion, or devout inhumanity?

and Gumpert does not:

The weapons of medicine for fighting pain and alleviating unbearable suffering have in-creased beyond any expectation. There is, indeed, no place for unbearable pain in modern medicine. If people die in torment it is because qualified medical or nursing care is unavailable. I have often been appalled by the undignified and careless way in which people are forced to die. Help in making birth easier is today a matter of routine, and almost no child comes into the world without expert assistance. Dying is often very diffi-cult. It seems to me there ought to be well-trained death helpers among doctors and nurses just as there are birth helpers. But what is needed is wise guidance in the tre-mendous human experience of death, not the fulfillment of a more or less self-imposed death sentence by euthanasia.

Both men give us a glimpse into the arguments of the time. It seems to me that while Gumpert calls for better treatment of suffering in the dying, addresses the then-recent Nazi euthanasia practices, warns that families and outsiders may pressure the terminally ill, and wishes for doctors to not have to make the "ultimate decision," his case against euthanasia stands much where opponents do today. Yet, he does not hark religion or faith as a justification for his position.

Benjamin calls for a humane way of addressing suffering, points to doctors who then (and today) used treatment of pain as a back door to ending life, and warns of the costs and other undue burden placed on families by terminal patients.

Both men claim to be on the side of compassion; as with opponents and advocates today, neither agree on what compassion dictates.



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