What made Nazi physicians unusually evil?

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During World War II, when the German air force was losing pilots shot down over freezing water, the Nazis thought that if they could determine how long a flyer could survive in the cold, they would know when to stop trying to rescue him.

So to simulate the suffering of the fallen pilots, German doctors took 300 Jewish concentration camp inmates, threw them in ice water and held them there until they lost consciousness.

“Some of the screams were so bad that the Nazis called off the experiment. It was too terrible, even for them,” Israeli medical ethicist Rabbi Avraham Steinberg said in Washington last week during a symposium on the 75th anniversary of the Nuremberg Medical Trial, during which Nazi physicians were tried for war crimes.

Friedman, who won the 1999 Israel Prize for his “Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics,” spoke about “The Relevance of Medicine during the Third Reich to Contemporary Medicine.” He said it was relevant because the Nazi physicians were not alone in conducting unethical experiments on unwilling or unknowing subjects.


Nazi doctors were not an anomaly

Forty-five percent of German physicians were members of the Nazi Party, Steinberg said. That was a higher percentage than any other profession in Germany. One of their goals was to make the world free for the Aryan race, which they began pursuing even before the outbreak of World War II. “In the 1930s, mentally deficient Germans were sterilized by German physicians,” he said.

Ideological experiments

The most infamous example of experiments on non-Aryans, was Josef Mengele’s “research” at Auschwitz on Jewish twins. He exposed them to life-threatening diseases, then gave them shots to see if that would cure them. He subjected them to unnecessary amputations. He transfused blood from one twin to the other. If one twin died, he killed the other and conducted an autopsy to compare their internal organs.

Outcomes: Medical

What was the outcome of these and other experiments? “Almost zero,” Steinberg said. “Most of the experiments were useless for future generations.”

Outcomes: Ethical

But what if plunging Jews into icy water had yielded some useful results? “Are we allowed to use the outcome?” Steinberg said.

The question is moot about the Nazis’ experiments, which produced no useful results. But it is valid when it comes to unethical experiments performed in the United States and elsewhere in the democratic West, he said.

The Tuskegee experiment, for example, in which U.S. researchers studied the progression of syphilis in Black men, who were told they were being treated but were not. In addition to being unethical, like the Nazi experiments, it produced no useful results.

But the yellow fever experiments conducted by Army pathologist and bacteriologist Walter Reed proved that the illness was transmitted by the bite of a female mosquito. To achieve those results, though, human subjects were intentionally exposed to a potentially fatal disease.

Can we use knowledge obtained unethically?

Judaism makes a distinction between a sin that ends with a good outcome, and an ongoing sin, Steinberg said.

If the sin has ended, “the Jewish approach is to use it to benefit others. But if the sin is continuing, that is forbidden.”

“We’re saved from having to consider Nazi experiments because they didn’t amount to anything.”

But the world continues to benefit from the unethically conducted yellow fever experiments.

The end of the god-like physician

Following World War II, Western allies formulated the Nuremberg Code to protect the rights of research subjects, Steinberg said. That was followed by the Helsinki Declaration, which called for the informed consent of people involved in experiments.

Those changes were accompanied by changes in the relationship between doctors and patients.

“Until the 1970s, the patient-physician relationship was a paternalistic relationship” in which the doctor is all-knowing and the patient knows nothing, Steinberg said. “’So why talk to him? My patient means nothing,”’ Steinberg said, imitating the doctors’ mindset. “This was medical ethics.”

“Today, in most Western societies, to practice paternalistic medicine is not only unethical, it’s illegal.”

The symposium, “Doctors gave the orders: 75 years after the Nuremberg Medical Trial,” was co-sponsored by The Kennedy Institute of Ethics and The Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics and Georgetown University.

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