Activism

Pro-euthanasia group Dignity in Dying UK has its roots in the eugenics movement

Maine, Dignity in Dying UK

As the debate rages on around assisted suicide in the Scottish parliament, the issue is being hotly debated in Scottish media. One news outlet targeted a Christian multi-millionaire who donated to a pro-life, anti-euthanasia organization called Care Not Killing. In return, other media outlets are shining a light on the origins of the pro-euthanasia organization Dignity in Dying UK, which has a troubled history — much like the connection between racist eugenicist Margaret Sanger and her organization, Planned Parenthood.

The assisted suicide advocacy group now known as Dignity in Dying UK was first known as the the Voluntary Euthanasia Legalisation Society (VELS) when it was founded in 1935 by a man named Dr. Killick Millard. A founding member of the group, Lord Arthur Ponsonby, introduced the first assisted suicide bill in 1936. In his address to Parliament, he argued that euthanasia is about “noble acts of self-sacrifice for others,” and not just “people who are sparing themselves pain.” The 1936 assisted suicide bill was defeated by a vote of 35 to 14, but VELS and its successor, Dignity in Dying UK, have continued to advocate for such laws over the decades. Most recently, such advocacy took place this year in the UK as well as Scotland.

READ: Four psychiatrists speak out against assisted suicide: Legal doesn’t mean ethical

Like many other eugenic movements throughout the world at the time, early British euthanasia activists in the 1930s favored euthanasia policies like those put in place by the Nazis, according to research from Canadian historian Ian Dowbiggin. Dr. Millard was “the first modern-day doctor to push for involuntary euthanasia of the incurably ill,” according to the American Life League. Dowbiggin noted that members of VELS had a tendency “to obscure the distinctions between voluntary and involuntary euthanasia.”

Regarding Millard’s eugenic beliefs, Dowbiggin found that “in principle he was not against the notion of euthanasia without consent nor was he unalterably opposed to applying euthanasia for eugenic purposes to young children with mental or emotional deficiencies.” Millard also celebrated the high infant mortality rates of “slum dwellers” because it ensured they would not threaten “the quality of the race.”

These unsavory facts were surely not unknown to euthanasia activists. Shockingly, Dowbiggin suspects euthanasia activists destroyed records and evidence showing the truth about the early euthanasia movement’s eugenics connection. In 2015, Dowbiggin said that a graduate student seeking to research his source material was told “that the collection had been intentionally destroyed.” And in fact, this happened a second time with another graduate student, who was told the same thing.

This apparent scrubbing of the records extends to many aspects of the movement, as Dr. Millard’s name does not appear on the website of Dignity in Dying UK, the direct successor to VELS.

No matter how hard activists try, there is no hiding the eugenic origins of a movement that once advocated for “involuntary euthanasia.” As Planned Parenthood struggles to come to terms with its racist, eugenic origins which still taint the actions of an organization that targets poor and minority women, Dignity in Dying UK cannot easily shake the legacy that belies its noble-sounding rhetoric.

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