Holocaust and Medicine Discussion

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By Katelyn Billings

Thursday, Feb. 27, two experts on the Holocaust visited Union and presented their research on the Holocaust and the infamous practice of unorthodox medicine by the Nazi Party. Patricia Herberer-Rice of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and Matthew Wynia of the American Medical Association, explained the new relationship between the ethics of medical practices and the history of the Holocaust.

Today, the American Medical Association is partnered with the Holocaust Museum, giving talks such as this one to educate people on the extreme misuse and disregard for ethics during the Second World War, and how this new partnership is an attempt to atone for crimes committed by doctors in the name of science.

Patricia Herberer-Rice spoke first, presenting on the history of the medical clinics in Nazi Germany and its many concentration camps.

“We all like to think that medicine is a healing and progressive force; we like to think that the ethics that underpin our methods are stable, yet those traditional concepts of medicine were profoundly challenged when medical professionals leant their services to the priorities of the National Socialists, and the Nazi government. Doctors, nurses and other medical professionals participated in some of the worst crimes of the Nazi regime,” said Herberer-Rice.

She continued describing the typical Nazi process called “euthanasia,” in which the Nazis kept healthy patients in their hospitals in order to study their diseases, and this was especially used towards sick children. The Nazis took sick children to disguised killing centers, because to the Nazis, these disabled children were blemishes on the idyllic Aryan race.

“Parents were convinced to send their children to pediatric facilities throughout Germany. The children were brought there and were held for a period of about six months for observation, and usually murdered by medication, overdoses and starvation, in some cases. About five to seven thousand German children are known to have died in this manner, and it is an understudied chapter of Holocaust history,” remarked Herberer-Rice.

Herberer-Rice explained another medical project of the Nazi Party, called euthanasia. In the Nazi context, euthanasia represented a euphemistic term for a clandestine murder program, which targeted for systematic killing mentally and physically disabled patients living in institutional settings in Germany and German-annexed territories.

The so-called euthanasia program was National Socialist Germany’s first program of mass murder, predating the genocide of European Jews by approximately two years. The effort represented one of many radical eugenic measures, which aimed to restore the racial integrity of the German nation. It endeavored to eliminate what eugenicists and their supporters considered “life unworthy of life”: those individuals who they believed represented at once a genetic and a financial burden upon German society and the state because of severe psychiatric, neurological or physical disabilities.

Director of Physician Engagement for Improving Health Outcomes for the American Medical Association Dr. Matthew Wynia is an international expert on medical ethics. He is also a clinical practitioner in infectious disease and internal medicine at the University of Chicago.

Wynia’s discussion explored the timeline of events that resulted in the decision made by qualified and intelligent doctors to pursue national goals, cloaked by science. He explained that the doctors of Nazi Germany were instructed to abandon their morals, “harden their hearts” and perform their medical duties to their country. They would inject healthy patients with Typhus and other painful diseases and just watch them suffer in order to learn more about the diseases.

“I have studied ethics all around the world and there is no kind of research that is taking place anywhere that is as unethical and horrible as infecting a healthy, young girl with Typhus, watching her die and then cutting open her twin sister to compare their organs,” said Wynia.

Wynia explained that the Nazis justified their medical practices and research in the name of bettering the human population as a whole, because they were keeping the fit healthy while simultaneously eliminating the sick and weak. Therefore, they believed that, in wiping away the unfit and unhealthy population, they were creating a healthier and overall better race of humans.

Wynia asserted that in order to better understand the Nazi regime and the ways educated and trusted medical professionals went from healers to killers, we need to understand that their decisions were made for them, and that they chose to practice medicine as a means of benefitting the state rather than the individual patient.

He also stated that, prior to the Third Reich’s rule, German medical ethics were far ahead of their time and were destined for great impacts on the general population, had it not been for the intervention of the Nazi Party.

“If we can see them [the doctors] as human beings, then understanding their paths to evil is crucial to our profession,” said Wynia.

Wynia and Herberer-Rice use the Holocaust as a method of learning from the past in order to protect our future, and, from the disregard of human rights and medical ethics, we now know how to prevent a tyrannical reign from usurping our inherent right to healthy and ethical medical practices.

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