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“A man should be permitted to go out of this world whenever he thinks fit.” Suicide and Euthanasia in the USA in the 1890s

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St Peter's

Dr Kevin Yuill, Associate Professor of American History - Faculty of Arts and Creative Industries - Associate Professorial Lecture Series 2020/21

This talk will compare attitudes to suicide and euthanasia in the United States in the 1890s with those of today. After prominent agnostic Robert G. Ingersoll’s “Is Suicide a Sin?” was published in 1894, the morality of suicide briefly became a popular topic in newspapers.

Though the explosion of sociological curiosity about suicide at the time is well known, as is an increasing tendency to understand suicide in medical terms, less is known about more popular interest in the moral aspects of suicide. Whereas Ingersoll’s attitude towards suicide expressed an individualistic, Social Dawininian ethos, a newer, more collectivist approach that would later find expression in Progressivism changed attitudes towards self-destruction.

Histories of euthanasia and assisted suicide point to this period as being a rehearsal of today’s discussion, but this article shows the difference between Ingersoll's attitude to suicide, which was compatible with moral equality, and the idea of euthanasia and assisted suicide, which attaches differential value to human lives, As the talk will shows, there was no mention of any need for assistance with suicide and virtually no crossover between advocating tolerance of suicide and advocating euthanasia, which became more popular a decade later.

Associate Professorial Lectures are an opportunity for Associate Professors to showcase their current research and/or learning and teaching priorities at the Institution.


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