Albert Einstein (1879-1955).
SCIENCE SOURCE—Getty Images/Photo Researchers RM
By Charlotte Alter
October 5, 2015

California Governor Jerry Brown signed right-to-die legislation into law on Monday, but the issue of whether suffering people should be able to control their own deaths has been debated for centuries. Take, for example, this 1929 TIME story about a son and his dead mother.

In 1929, a Frenchman named Richard Corbett shot his mother. She was dying of cancer, doctors said there was no hope for her, and he described her life as “suffering torture,” but he was tried for her murder nonetheless. A jury found him not guilty and, perhaps sensing that this debate would rage for at least another 80 years, TIME staffers sought comment and opinions from the major thinkers of the day.

Here’s what Albert Einstein had to say: “I approve unqualifiedly the action of Richard Corbett, and I am happy in his acquittal by the French court, where a healthy feeling for the spirit of justice triumphed over the dead letter of the law.”

George Bernard Shaw didn’t agree: “It is impossible to have a state of affairs in which one person may shoot another and then allege it was a sort of suicide by deputy. Suicide cannot be permitted by deputy.”

Other luminaries of the time also debated the issue, some of whom are less familiar to our modern audiences. But rest assured: as long as people have been living and dying, there have been debates about how to do both.

 

Write to Charlotte Alter at charlotte.alter@time.com.

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