(1st Things) Wesley Smith–The Deadly Legacy of Eugenics

Here’s an example. Many people believe that German crimes in the medical context were Hitler’s idea, or were purely a product of Nazi ideology. Not true. The doctors who committed these crimes had embraced the eugenicist ideology that views some lives as of lower “quality” and, hence, lower value than others. The support among German medical, legal, and academic intelligentsia for euthanasia and terminating the disabled long predated Hitler’s rise to power.

Medical historian Robert Jay Lifton has identified the 1920 book Permitting the Destruction of Life Not Worthy of Life (Die Freigabe der Vernichtung Lebensunwerten Lebens), written by law professor Karl Binding and physician Alfred Hoche, as “the crucial work” promoting the agenda of death. Permitting the Destruction of Life profoundly influenced the values of the general public and the ethics of the German medical and legal communities—to the point that a 1925 poll of the parents of disabled children reported that 74 percent of them would agree to the painless killing of their own children!

The book is a truly chilling read, not only because of its crass advocacy for killing the defenseless, but also because of the ways in which it mirrors many concepts propounded by bioethicists and euthanasia advocates today. Binding and Hoche believed that some lives are so degraded that they constitute “life not worthy of life.” Who were these unfortunates?

  1. Terminally ill or mortally wounded individuals who “have been irretrievably lost as a result of illness or injury, who fully understand their situation, possess and have somehow expressed an urgent wish for release.” This view is virtually identical to the euthanasia and assisted suicide policies urged upon us today.
  2. Binding and Hoche believed it was permissible to euthanize “incurable idiots,” whose lives they denigrated as “pointless” and “valueless.” They were deemed an economic and emotional “burden on society and their families.” Today’s advocates do not depict the developmentally disabled as “idiots,” nor do most go as far as Hoche and Binding did in calling for non-voluntary killing. However, the economic cost of caring for those labeled as having a low quality of life is frequently noted by euthanasia advocates and asserted as grounds for healthcare rationing and the withdrawal of wanted life support.
  3. The “unconscious,” who “if they ever again were roused from their comatose state, would waken to nameless suffering.” The United States and other Western nations already allow terminating such individuals by withholding tube-supplied sustenance—as vividly exposed in the legal and cultural conflagration over the court-ordered dehydration death of Terri Schiavo.

More explicit eugenics advocacy of the era is also analogous to culture-of-death arguments made today.

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Posted in Anthropology, Ethics / Moral Theology, Health & Medicine, History, Law & Legal Issues, Life Ethics, Science & Technology