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Euthanasia and the future of medicine.

Euthanasia and the Future of Medicine

Between 1920 and 1935, the most humane and scientifically advanced medical community the world had ever known underwent a radical moral devolution that led to the medical killing of two hundred thousand psychiatric and chronic patients and, later, to physician cooperation with the broader program of social extermination conducted under Nazi auspices. How did it happen? And is the moral implosion of Weimar medicine relevant in any way to the evaluation of contemporary trends in America or Holland?

These were the leading themes of the International Conference on Euthanasia and the Future of Medicine held October 24-25 at Clark University in Worcester, MA. Organized by Patrick Derr, chair of Clark's philosophy department, and attended by more than three hundred physicians, attorneys, academics, and clergy from North America and Europe, the conference heard papers by two dozen speakers including C. Everett Koop, Ralph McInerny, Fred Rosner, Mark Siegler, Arthur Dyck, Milton Heifetz, and Moshe Tendler. Sessions were good humored but often intense.

A recurring theme in many of the presentations was the influence of the 1920 German monograph (The Release of the Destruction of Life Unworthy to be Lived) by Prof. Dr. of Law and Philosophy Karl Binding and Prof. Dr. of Medicine Alfred Hoche. The first complete translation of this work was recently finished by Clark professor Walter Wright. In his own paper, Wright traced the intellectual origins of German medical killing back through such works as Aldred Jost's Das Recht auf den Tod (The Right to Die), arguing that the foundations of medical killing were very different than those of Nazi ideology.

Several speakers lamented the fact that, prior to Robert Lifton's The Nazi Doctors, there was little research on Weimar medicine. An important paper that should contribute to our understanding of the beginnings of medical killing in Germany was presented by Dr. Robert Salomon, who took his neurology training under Hoche in the early twenties, and later pioneered the use of rotating anode X-ray machines in the United States. Illustrating his remarks with personal recollections, Salomon described the manner in which German medical students were indoctrinated with the new "euthanasian" ethic and recalled whispered reports of isolated medical killings beginning in the twenties.

A paper by Professor I. van der Sluis (Amsterdam) indicated that recent Dutch studies suggest that the official figures for deaths from active euthanasia in Holland (3,000 per year) are systematically low, and that a more accurate estimate would be in the range of 6,000 to 18,000. According to van der Sluis, a significant and increasing fraction of these deaths involve persons who had never asked to be euthanized.

The most contentious sessions of the conference were debates between Derek Humphry (World Federation of Right to Die Societies) and James Bopp (National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent and Disabled) and between Judy Ahronheim, (Society for the Right to Die) and Edward Grant (Americans United for Life).

In his closing remarks, conference organizer Patrick Derr offered the hypothesis that Weimar medicine's fatal error had been the belief that it could accept a little killing on its own (well-intentioned) initiative and still resist social pressures to participate in much more killing at someone else's initiative. Drawing on Margaret Mead's anthropological work on the origins of magic and medicine, Derr suggested that regardless of society's willingness to tolerate various forms of killing (capital execution, abortion, infanticide, active euthanasia), the medical profession ought not to accept involvement in such practices.

The conference proceedings are available on video tape. The papers will be published, together with the Binding & Hoche translation, in 1989.
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Title Annotation:International Conference on Euthanasia and the Future of Medicine
Author:Derr, Patrick
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Date:Dec 1, 1988
Previous Article:The physician and national security.
Next Article:Mediagenic ethics.

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