Lest we forget

Berlin's new memorial to the victims of Nazi eugenics should prompt us to remember our own.
Michael Cook | 4 September 2014
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A memorial to the 300,000 victims of Nazi euthanasia programs was opened in Berlin this week. It is striking piece of modern architecture: a 30-metre-long wall of blue glass in the open air.  

“The Nazi murders of disabled people are among the most inhumane acts of history,” says Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit. “It is high time that these victims of Nazi inhumanity finally receive their own memorial.” 

The regime had several methods of killing the mentally and physically disabled: starvation, lethal injections or chambers filled with carbon monoxide gas. The so-called T4 program became a trial run for the gas chambers of Auschwitz and other death camps. About 70,000 of the deaths occurred at the program’s headquarters at Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin, thus giving the program its name.

“We must denounce the inhumane distinction between a worthy and an unworthy life,” said Monika Gruetters, Germany's state minister for culture and media. “Every human life is valuable - that's the message of this memorial.”

And it is a message which still falls on deaf ears.

The philosophical justification for the mass killing of millions of Jews and Roma (Gypsies) along with the disabled is not generally understood. As Robert Jay Lifton shows in his classic text The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, the Nazis justified their anti-Semitism with pseudo-scientific reasoning: they wanted to improve the human gene pool.

In their eyes the ideal state was a “biocracy” dedicated to “assembling and preserving the most valuable stocks of basic racial elements in this [Aryan] people … [and] … raising them to a dominant position”, as Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf. The language and the logic he used to persuade doctors and scientists was medical. As one of the Auschwitz doctors explained, killing Jews was fully compatible with his Hippocratic Oath:

“My Hippocratic oath tell me to cut a gangrenous appendix out of the human body. The Jews are the gangrenous appendix of mankind. That’s why I cut them out.” (Lifton, page 232)

Have we put this philosophy behind us for ever?

Not by a long shot. In fact, eugenics is making a comeback – not the state-controlled eugenics which was sanctioned in many Western countries, including the United States, Canada, and England, not just Nazi Germany – but privatised, do-it-yourself eugenics.

Not only are disabled children routinely aborted as a matter of convenience, but quite a number of bioethicists are making a vigorous case for improving the gene pool based upon the notion of consumer choice. “In point of fact, we practise eugenics when we screen for Down’s syndrome, and other chromosomal or genetic abnormalities,” said Oxford professor Julian Savulescu in a 2005 interview. “The reason we don’t define that sort of thing as ‘eugenics’, as the Nazis did, is because it’s based on choice. It’s about enhancing people’s freedom rather than reducing it.”

If you are looking for evidence of the revival, Exhibit Number One is a recent booklet published with the support of the London-based Wellcome Trust, the second-largest private funder of medical research in the world, “Eugenics and the Ethics of Selective Reproduction”. In it, bioethicists Stephen Wilkinson and Eve Garrard demolish the public’s objections to eugenics, so long as it does not involve coercion.

They contend that the Nazis gave eugenics a bad name, but that the aims of the contemporary variety are largely unobjectionable:

“People’s objections to eugenics stem in part from the horrors practised by the Nazis in their pursuit of eugenic aims, but there’s no reason to think that attempts to improve the gene pool must necessarily involve the hideous force and coercion of the Nazi methods or the racism of their aims, nor need we suppose that all such attempts must involve the creation of so-called ‘designer babies’ or lead to human enhancement.”

Why? Because eugenics is all about building a healthy society:

“For provided that the means used are ethically acceptable, and that people freely consent, it’s not clear that attempting to improve population health (‘the gene pool’) is a bad thing for us to be doing. On the contrary, it seems on the face of it to be a good thing – given the high value that most of us place on good health, and on preventing ourselves and our loved ones from acquiring diseases or impairments.”

Oddly enough, however, they even argue that creating intentionally disabled babies is morally acceptable, as long as the parents’ intentions are good. For instance, they approve of deaf parents genetically engineering deaf babies so that they will become part of the deaf community:

“Many people’s first reaction is that seeking deliberately to create a child with a disability is morally repugnant and obviously wrong. This reaction is more often than not driven by a very proper concern with the welfare of the child created, the thought being that ‘choosing disability’ through embryo selection is akin to injuring an existing child. As we have seen however this view, on deeper reflection, is hard to maintain, for two key reasons.
“Firstly and most fundamentally this is because normally the only alternative for the child would be non-existence and so (except perhaps in a small number of cases involving intolerable suffering) it is hard to maintain that the child has been harmed by being created. Most people with disabilities are glad to be alive and would prefer to exist than never to have been born. So, in the light of this, it seems perverse to attempt to prevent such people from existing in the future for their own good, or in order to avoid harming them.”

Apart from the Nazis’ repugnant anti-Semitism and out-of-date genetics and the bioethicists’ focus on consumer choice, is there a difference between improving the gene pool with sterilizations and gas chambers and improving it with pre-implantation genetic diagnosis? Both types regard disability as a capital offence.  

The stunning new memorial in Berlin, then, is not just a memorial of past crimes. It is a warning of future crimes. In the days of the Nazis, many of Germany’s top doctors and medical scientists fully supported criminal eugenics. Is history repeating itself, with the money and prestige of one of the world’s leading research institutes promoting a revival of this corrupt philosophy?

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

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