Abortion and the Nazi Doctors

I was stunned to open today’s newspaper and read an incredible letter to the editor, not only defending abortion, but making a case which the Nazi doctors would have been proud of. A Melbourne doctor castigated a fellow paediatrician for following his conscience over the abortion issue.

Evidently the doctor had left – or was thinking about leaving – Victoria to avoid having to refer a patient for an abortion. But the letter writer thought this was just not on. “Termination of pregnancy is an unavoidable part of medical practice,” he opined.

It is? Really? One might as well try to argue that unethical experimentation on prisoners is an unavoidable part of medical practice. That seemed to be what the Nazi physicians sought to argue in their own defence. In 1947 twenty Nazi doctors were tried and found guilty at the Nuremberg trials for this very thing.

They not only argued that it was unavoidable, but they had to do it. They said that such brutal experiments and the killing of patients were morally permissible, because they were not doing it on their own authority, but under the authority of German law.

The judges at Nuremberg weren’t buying this however. They rightly argued that we are all accountable to a higher law, and that such justifications will not be tolerated. Moral accountability must always trump cheap excuses and moral buck-passing.

Yet our letter writer continues to push amoral and shallow thinking on this issue. He implies that we must perform abortions, or revert back to the dark old days of backyard abortions. “I don’t think my peers will ever forget the horrors of the pre-legalisation era when, for example, women died from gas gangrene as a complication of ‘criminal’ abortion.”

This is bogus for several reasons. Legalising abortion did not make abortion safer. It was made safer in the 1940s and onwards with the availability of antibiotics. Also, the majority of abortions performed before legalisation were done in doctor’s offices, not in “backyards”.

And there were far fewer people who died from abortions prior to legalisation than is usually alleged. Bernard Nathanson ought to know. He was a leading abortionist during this period – having performed 60,000 abortions – and helped to make up the figure of 5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year prior to legalisation. He says: “I confess that I knew the figures were totally false, and I suppose the others did too if they stopped to think of it. But in the ‘morality’ of our revolution, it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics? The overriding concern was to get the laws eliminated, and anything within reason that had to be done was permissible”.

Moreover, the doctor fails to tell us about all the women who are injured or killed undergoing abortions today – that is, legal abortions. Legalisation has done nothing to protect women. It has simply legalised the harm, injuries, complications and death they face as a result of the procedure.

But it is the conclusion of his letter which is the most chilling. This is what he actually says: “Referrals that leave you uncomfortable are par for the course in clinical practice. I see the occasional patient referred with infertility whom I would consider far from an ideal parent, but I still refer her to a subspecialist. Good doctors don’t moralise, they leave that to the clergy.”

It is the final sentence of course that really is the most frightening – and sickening. Doctors have no moral obligations? They should not even think about the moral implications of their work? Morality is simply outside the practice of medicine?

This is as incredible as it is frightening. Indeed, it seems to be the very sort of reasoning that the Nazi doctors used in their defence before the Nuremberg tribunal. They too tried to pass the buck, and evade any moral considerations. Indeed, they claimed that they were not killing by their own authority, but were simply obeying the laws of Germany.

Such a defence was found to be morally bankrupt and intellectually indefensible. The twenty Nazi doctors were rightly convicted for the horrible human experiments they conducted on prisoners of war. But there were many more German doctors who were complicit in the Nazi program.

We all know of the “Angel of Death,” Josef Mengele, but much of the German medical and scientific community was involved – either directly or indirectly – in the horrors unleashed by the Nazis. Indeed, whole volumes have been written documenting the involvement of these doctors in Hitler’s monstrous program. Three key volumes are:

– Naomi Baumslag, Murderous Medicine: Nazi Doctors, Human Experimentation, and Typhus (Praeger Publishers, 2005).
-Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (Basic Books, 1986).
-Vivien Spitz, Doctors from Hell: The Horrific Account of Nazi Experiments on Humans (Sentient Publications, 2005).

All three books are well worth reading, and could be extensively quoted from here. But let me cite another authority, bioethicist Edmund Pellegrino. In 1997 he penned an important article entitled “The Nazi Doctors and Nuremberg: Some Moral Lessons Revisited”. It is worth citing here.

He writes, “Moral lessons are quickly forgotten. Medical ethics is more fragile than we think. Moral reasoning based on defective premises tends to recur in new settings. Not all of the Nazi physicians were mentally deranged – they believed they were doing the right thing. If we are to avoid even attenuated errors of the same kind, we are obliged to examine a few of their errors even now.”

He reminds us of the ten basic principles contained in the 1949 Nuremberg Code (see the link provided below), and discusses how an entire nation could embark upon such a course:

“What the Nazi doctors illustrate is that ethical teaching has to be sustained by the ethical values of the larger community. In Germany, this support system was weakened well before the Holocaust and the experiments at Auschwitz. German academics, especially psychiatrists, were leaders in theories of racial superiority, social Darwinism, and the genetic transmissibility of mental illness before Hitler came to power. They even urged the Hitler regime to adopt these nefarious ideals.

“Clearly, protection of the integrity of medical ethics is important for all of society. If medicine becomes, as Nazi medicine did, the handmaiden of economics, politics, or any force other than one that promotes the good of the patient, it loses its soul and becomes an instrument that justifies oppression and the violation of human rights. Subversion becomes a greater danger whenever medicine comes too close to the power of the state. The German medical profession eagerly supported Hitler’s Third Reich and made itself the Reich’s willing agent.”

He concludes as follows: “Clearly, there are moral lessons still to be learned from the Nuremberg Trials and there always will be. These lessons must be repeatedly relearned. They are pertinent to other contexts and other issues in today’s intensive bioethics debates. The Nuremberg Trials and the Holocaust are metaphors for absolute moral evil, the lessons of which are as old as ethics itself. This we must never forget if we wish to be certain that the moral disasters revealed at Nuremberg never occur again.”

I am not suggesting that the doctor quoted above is in the same league as the Nazi doctors. But his apparent disregard for any moral considerations in the field of medicine is very worrying indeed. It would seem that a similar lack of interest in ethics helped pave the way for Nazi medicine. As Pellegrino argues, it appears we really have learned very little from the horrors of the recent past.


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24 Replies to “Abortion and the Nazi Doctors”

  1. No he is not in the same ‘league’ however, just as the Nazification, if you will, of Germany happened in small degrees, so to does the moral decline in any civilisation.

    Another good post Bill. It is this process of highlighting errors in thought at the root cause that is so important in this age of political correctness and moral duplicity.

    Garth Penglase

  2. “Legalisation has done nothing to protect women. It has simply legalised the harm, injuries, complications and death they face as a result of the procedure.”

    Precisely, Bill. Because legalisation protects ONLY the doctors who perform the abortions, by removing the threat of criminal prosecution.

    It is incapable of protecting women, because they can only be protected by people (who care about the Hippocratic Oath).

    Once again, we see the duplicitous manner of such arguments presented by liberalists – the entire focus of the debate was on the protection of women.

    This totally distracted the community from the real effect of the measures – both judicial (Menhennitt judgement) and legislative (last year’s amendment to the Crimes Act).

    John Angelico

  3. The Hippocratic Oath says, in part, “I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy. In purity and holiness I will guard my life & my art.”

    Doctors evidently do have moral responsibility for their choices & acts.

    Leon Brooks

  4. Bill – I may have related this before, but it is very relevant to your article: at the time of the Nuremburg trials (which you describe) it was said, by a British commentator, that it would only be a matter of time before the victorious nations, who were currently trying the Nazi war criminals, would be practiding/condoning things just as bad as those they were condemning the Nazis for. That time, obviously, has now come. We are no better than the Nazi war criminals – or rather, worse, since we do it on a much bigger scale (internationally organised and legalised), and because most of the Nazi’s victims had had some sort of life, adult life in most cases – the victims of the Western abortion mega-holocaust have had none.
    John Thomas, UK

  5. Hi Bill,

    I fear that Christians are still unduly swayed by the argument, given by the letter writer to The Age, that it is such a terrible thing for women to die as a result of ‘backyard abortions’ that it is better to make abortion legal.

    This gross example of political expediency not only implies some sort of moral equivalency between a woman intentionally killing her baby and the mother dying of complications as a result of that murder; but also assumes that governments may expressly transgress God’s commands to punish the evildoer (Rom 13:4) in order to achieve a man-defined ‘lesser evil’.

    No doubt many women contemplating abortion find themselves in difficult circumstances, but this never excuses murder.

    It is worth remembering that God consistently prescribes the death penalty for murder. This command was given to all of mankind before Israel was founded (Gen 9:6). It was then reiterated in the Mosaic code (e.g. Ex 21:12), and careful encouragement was given to the Israelites not to neglect putting the murderer to death (Deut 19:11-13). And finally the role of the state in carrying out capital punishment is legitimised again in the new testament (Rom 13:4).

    To illustrate the confusion; one of the speakers in the March for the Babies to Parliament House in Melbourne on Saturday actually said he was against capital punishment for the same reasons that he was against abortion! I’m glad he’s against abortion, but talk about being morally mixed up. I shouted out “Booo” to this, but no-one else in the crowd seemed concerned.

    Mansel Rogerson

  6. Yes I noticed that too Mansel. It was the leader of the Victorian Nationals Peter Ryan who said it. I thought he had more sense but I guess he forgot to read his Bible.

    Ewan McDonald.

  7. The same kind of argument was made by Peter Beattie in Queensland (the protection of women) for the legalisation of prostitution.

    He argued we needed legalised prostitution and regulation to protect women in the sex “industry” from abuse and physical harm.

    But does the state have any obligation to protect those who deliberately operate outside of its laws and who know that what they do is risky and detrimental to themselves? Perhaps in preventing the behaviour, not condoning and taking control of it.

    A recent study has found that illegal prostitution operates along side legal prostitution and that women are still abused and at risk even in regulated brothels. The proponents of the sex industry have cried for further relaxation of the prostitution laws (surprise, surprise!)

    I find that the argument about the protection of women in backyard abortions is fallacious. It is put out there as a sop to the bleeding heart fraternity (the bulk of unthinking Christianity) by some very cynical and hard hearted liberals. Laws should be made on the grounds of what is best for women and the community as a whole, not as a basis of what could go wrong if an individual thumbs their nose at the rest of society.

    Lennard Caldwell, Clifton QLD

  8. The issue of abortion is a strangely avoided in discussion amongst many of my Christian friends. Many of them I think are afraid of the conflict that might arise from having discussion about the issue. I pray they grow some guts and stand up for the most innocent of all people and take the time and effort to study the issue and make an impact on the way other people think and act and ultimately save the lives of precious human beings. Bill, I have been trying to get Greg Koukl’s talk series “Precious Unborn Human Persons” to as many people as I know (mostly Christian), and use the tactics he advises to fight for the sanctity of the unborn. Keep up the battle.
    Keith Jarrett

  9. Mansel, Ewan,

    Whereas I agree ideologically with capital punishment, I cannot agree that it should be implemented in today’s society. With all the disagreement that “Bill’s bloggers” (myself included) have with the political and legal system, could we really trust that same system to implement a system of capital punishment? At the moment no, in a truly Godly society, I believe yes, but I don’t think I’ll see that in my lifetime.

    Graeme Cumming

  10. Thanks Graeme

    I have sought to make the case for capital punishment elsewhere (at least the biblical and theological components):

    So I won’t here repeat myself. But it seems your objection goes something like this: we live in a fallen world, where for various reasons, miscarriages of justice are always possible. Therefore we should abstain from CP.

    But let’s follow the logic of your argument here. Yes we do live in a fallen world, with imperfect perception and knowledge. And yes all sorts of wrong and incorrect and even unjust legal and criminal court decisions are made. Therefore we should get rid of the entire criminal justice system.

    But it is God himself who made provision for the punishment of wrongdoers in a fallen world. The various biblical checks and balances and safety nets as provided in the Old Testament are often still reflected in modern criminal law today. And with something like CP, you of course need a higher degree of certainty as to whether the person is in fact guilty of something that warrants the death penalty.

    So we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water here.

    But this is certainly an issue where Christians can and do disagree on. So thanks for sharing your concerns. They are valid concerns, but I think they can be addressed.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  11. Bill,

    I am disappointed at your response. I know you are likely to be busy but you seemed to have ignored what I have said and placed words into my mouth.

    Do you (Bill, Mansel, Ewan,), with all the disagreement that “Bill’s bloggers” (myself included) have with the political and legal system, believe that we really trust Australia’s current legal system to implement a system of capital punishment?

    Before you answer, remember the many criticisms you have made of that system, generally criticisms I agree with.

    Graeme Cumming

  12. Mansel & Ewan:
    I also winced at Peter Ryan’s undiscriminating statement last Saturday after the march. What he should have said, I believe, was, “I am against unjust death – abortion & euthanasia. I am for just death – for murderers.” There’s obviously an infinite difference between commiting an innocent human foetus to death and executing a vicious murderer.
    Spero Katos, Caulfield, Victoria

  13. Dear Keith,
    Can you please send me Greg Koukl’s talk series “Precious unborn human persons” by email?
    I would be so grateful to you!
    God Bless!
    Jane Byrne

  14. Thanks Graeme

    Sorry if I have misread your question. I could offer another line of response, but that may not be what you are looking for either. Perhaps you can therefore rephrase your question for me, as I am now not quite sure what you are asking for. So let me know thanks.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  15. Hi Graeme,

    If I have understood your position correctly, we seem to be in agreement that God has given the authority to punish evildoers with capital punishment and furthermore has given the specific crimes which attract this penalty and the ways of establishing guilt in these cases. I take it we are also in agreement that if we had a government which carried out all these stipulations we would have a great legal system, but if we fail to carry out only some of these, or add extras, it will not be so good.

    From this it pretty much follows that certain combinations of God’s and man’s laws are bound to be worse than others. So, for example, having capital punishment (God’s law) but using it against Christians (man’s law) is a worse combination than banning capital punishment (man’s law) and not using it against Christians (God’s law).

    So I agree with you in principle – there may be times when adding only one aspect of God’s law to an already thoroughly evil system may in fact exacerbate the evil. The pertinent question is, however: have we (in Australia) reached such evil that if capital punishment were to be reintroduced it would be used in such indiscriminate or inappropriate circumstances that it would make it a worse combination of God’s and man’s laws than we have presently?

    In my opinion I disagree with you here and think it would be a better combination. If capital punishment were reintroduced it would be used (and I believe continue to be used for the forseeable future) in a very circumspect way against the worst murderers. In fact, it would be used in far too circumspect a way compared to how God would have it used! Furthermore, the procedures we have for determining guilt (trial by jury etc), whilst not perfect, are adequate for the task.

    Mansel Rogerson

  16. The acceptance of gratuitous violence against innocent human beings in the name of “choice” is a direct outcome of the pervasive dissemination of moral relativism in our society, starting with children in schools. In this way, secular liberalism is cloaked in “moral neutrality”.
    The point is that we have to expose and denounce moral relativism, rather than simply fight its indiviual manifestations of which abortion is only one.
    Doreen West

  17. If the right to life is not absolute, then moral relativism prevails. In this situation one person or a group of persons arrogates unto themselves the right to decide who shall live and who shall not; to wit, Hitler and the Nazis. I rest my case

    Con Michael

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