‘Can you help me, doctor? How patient requests changed birth and death in the twentieth century’, a call for collaboration

Hieke Huistra, Alumni of the CMH New Generations programme, has recently been awarded a grant for the research project below. She is seeking possibilities for exchange/collaboration with researchers working on similar themes in different countries and/or fields. Please contact her direct if you are interested.

A 78-year-old woman shuffles into the doctor’s practice and asks for euthanasia because she considers her life completed — how should we respond?

Patients increasingly seek medical interventions in ‘natural’ life events like giving birth, aging and dying; their requests vary from eyelid corrections and Viagra prescriptions to freezing egg-cells and assisted dying. Our response to such demands matters — not just to individual patients, but for all of us, because patient requests can transform the role medicine plays in our society. However, currently we do not understand the requests’ long-term effects. To help providing this understanding, this project investigates the long-term history of two patient requests concerning the beginning and the end of our lives: hospital birth and active euthanasia.

The project analyses the emergence and effects of patient requests between 1900 and 2015. It challenges the traditional view that patient requests started to transform modern medicine only in the late twentieth century and introduces the new argument that patients initiated medicalization throughout the long twentieth century. Building on insights from history and sociology of medicine, I historicize two patient requests which we usually think of as having emerged only recently in the Netherlands: hospital birth and euthanasia. To do so, I will analyse a wide variety of sources, including medical journals, newspapers, parliamentary records and popular magazines. Systematically studying these sources is now possible for the first time due to recent mass digitization projects.

Now that we can carry out this research, it is urgent to start this project soon, since we are struggling with newly emerging patient requests on matters of life and death. Only if we understand the long-term development and consequences of such requests, can we decide how to deal with them — which will ultimately determine how we are born and how we die.

This project asks how patients themselves have influenced the medicalization of ‘natural’ life processes (e.g. giving birth, aging, dying) during the twentieth century, in order to help establish an understanding of the possibility of the long-term consequences of currently emerging patient requests for medical intervention. I focus on two case studies in particular: hospital birth and active euthanasia, both in the Netherlands. However, although the case studies are Dutch, the project’s main questions are certainly not unique to the Netherlands, nor are they strictly historical, and hence I think they would benefit from an interdisciplinary and international context (and vice versa), which is why I am very keen to explore possibilities for exchange/collaboration with researchers working on similar themes in different countries and/or fields.

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