In the Face of Death

Societal Attitudes and Popular Opinion on Medical Aid and Dying in Belgium 1936–1950

In: Secular Studies
Niels De Nutte Secular Studies Association Brussels Belgium Brussels
Vrije Universiteit Brussel Belgium Brussels

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Although Belgium has been a pioneer in dynamics related to the legalisation of euthanasia since the early 2000s, the historical work done on the subject is still very limited. Quite some work has, however, been done on the legal and ethical aspects and implications of euthanasia laws. Questions about societal dynamics in end-of-life issues’ acceptance and debate in the twentieth century in Belgium are to this day unanswered. It is clear, however, that before 1970, no advocacy groups on the matter existed. In this paper, we look at the scope, tone and volume of Belgian newspaper coverage in three events linked to euthanasia, which occurred prior to the emergence of advocacy groups on the subject. The three cases covered are the 1936 bill put forward by Lord Arthur Ponsonby on euthanasia in Great Britain, the 1949 trial of Dr. Herman Sander, the American physician who was charged with the murder of a patient suffering from cancer, and the 1950 release of the film “Meurtres” by Richard Pottier in which famed French actor Fernandel played a man mercy-killing his wife, based on the eponymous book written by Belgian novelist Charles Plisnier in 1943. With this paper, we shed light on the portrayal of euthanasia as a subject and the societal attitude that corresponds to it. The highly pillarised nature of 20th century Belgian newspapers makes this source material highly suited to this endeavour.

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