Most people who go into medicine have as at least part of their motivation the desire to help other people. I’m sure this was as true in 1930’s Germany as anywhere else. So how did a cadre of Nazi doctors come not only to commit crimes against humanity, but also to defend the moral correctness of their conduct when placed on trial for those crimes? The answer is complex, but one way was through the teaching of medical ethics.
An article in the April 18th Annals of Internal Medicine tells a cautionary tale for teachers and learners of bioethics. Entitled “Lectures on Inhumanity: Teaching Medical Ethics in German Medical Schools Under Nazism,” the article details how the Nazi party developed a curriculum for teaching ethics in medical schools that “was intended to explicitly create a ‘new type of physician’ . . . trained to internalize and then implement the Nazi biomedical vision . . . shifting the focus of ethical concern and medical care away from the individual patient and toward the general welfare of society or the people.” The curriculum included lectures in racial hygiene, the science of heredity, population policy, military medicine, and the history of medicine. Only long-standing members of the Nazi party were appointed lecturers. The lecturer at Berlin University, Rudolf Ramm, wrote the ethics textbook used in the curriculum, which emphasized physician paternalism in practicing their moral obligation to rid society of certain groups, and asserted that every (Aryan) person in Germany had a moral duty to stay healthy.
The article’s authors write, “The Nazis neither ignored nor abandoned medical ethics. Instead, they implemented their own version of it in order to substantiate their health policies and secure physicians’ allegiance. . . an ethic that turned away from the individual and instead emphasized the well-being of the community. . . [They] reinterpreted the Hippocratic Oath for their purposes . . . [drawing] an analogy between the German people and a sick patient . . . so that the Hippocratic Oath seemed to fit with Nazi medical ethics: Exterminating Jewish persons, disabled persons, or patients with hereditary diseases was acceptable in order to heal the organism of the German people.”
The article’s authors draw the conclusion that “we should not rely on the existence of ‘eternal’ or ‘universal’ values in medicine because it is not the medical profession alone that determines the medical ethos but also the moral climate in society, the system of government, and its political goals.” However, this seems to me backwards; it is precisely because society, government, and politics are so fickle that it is vitally important that the practitioners of this art cling tenaciously to the universal values stated so simply and starkly in the Hippocratic Oath: I will not kill, whether in the womb or out of it. I will protect patient privacy. I will treat everyone with the same regard, regardless of their status. Real Hippocratism should have been a resistance movement against Nazism; it should be again now against the forces that are threatening to deform the medical ethos. If we do not hold fast to these values and teach subsequent generations of doctors to do the same, we will find — we are finding — that we are playing variations on a Nazi theme: for the eugenic ideals inherent in Nazism, the idea that it is morally acceptable to kill some (unborn) people to benefit others, and the belief that there are lives which are not worth living, ideas which have “laid the groundwork for medico-ethical transgressions in the past, remain in play across time.”