During the 20th century many movements emerged in favour of euthanasia. They did not appear from nowhere, nor were they inspired by the secular, individualistic iconoclasm of natural law and the Enlightenment. Since ancient times and until the late 19th century, euthanasia in Europe manifested itself in many ways (although often in conditions of secrecy and discretion) and managed to survive in several popular social and cultural niches, ready to surface and erupt in our contemporary ethics. This essentially human act of mercy is found in many contexts: the coup de grâce dealt to a fatally wounded fellow soldier, the obsessive quest for an unlikely martyrdom, the improper manipulation of the instruments of public justice, the tacit behaviour of an obliging doctor or a compassionate caregiver, the institutionalization of routines pursued by good death “professionals”, and thousands of other superstitions and religiously-oriented rituals.
Marco Cavina teaches Medieval and Modern Law and Modern and Contemporary Law at the University of Bologna, where he also heads the History of Criminal Justice Research Centre.