Humanity in the Balance

History and ‘Lives Not Worth Living’

Following World War II, the Allies put Nazi Germany’s surviving leaders on trial for genocide and other war crimes. The chief medical consultant for the prosecution was an American doctor named Leo Alexander.

In 1949, Alexander summed up what he had learned from his experience at the Nuremberg War Trials. He wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine that the horrors of the Third Reich were made possible by a single idea: the belief that some lives are not worth living.

You would think that Alexander’s words and the wreckage caused by Nazi barbarism would have driven that lesson home. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

The Nazis’ phrase for the kind of lives Alexander wrote about was Lebensunwertes Leben, which means “lives not worth living.” They initially employed the phrase to justify killing the sick and the handicapped. They weren’t concerned about individual suffering; their concern was the cost and inconvenience to society of keeping these people alive.

Once they convinced people to subject human life to a cost/benefit analysis with regards to the sick and the handicapped, it became easier to apply these standards to other groups.

Given this evil history, you’d expect that both the idea and the phrase would have been banished from German culture forever. They haven’t been.

Nearly three-quarters of all Germans surveyed favor physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. Even worse, a survey of German doctors found that 6.4 percent of hospital physicians and 10.5 percent of general practitioners had been present when a physician euthanized a patient.

To add moral insult to mortal injury, the Nazi phrase is regularly used by German advocates of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia.

Whatever lessons Germans have learned from their history apparently did not include a high regard for the sanctity of human life. And Germans are not alone in this regard. Dutch doctors heroically opposed the Nazis two generations ago. Now, Dutch doctors murder upwards of 3,500 patients a year.

It would be foolish to think that what’s happening in Europe can’t happen here. Given its current trajectory, American culture is well on its way to embracing what Pope John Paul II has called “the culture of death.”

Oregon has already legalized physician-assisted suicide. At least a dozen states have considered or are considering similar measures. While none of them have joined Oregon, it may only be a matter of time. Nearly half of all doctors surveyed favor legalizing physician-assisted suicide.

So-called “death with dignity” is depicted sympathetically in the media. A generation of Americans, like a generation of Germans seventy years ago, are being taught that there is such a thing as “a life not worth living.” What they are not told is that, once a culture believes that, there’s no reason for a doctor to wait for his patients to request assistance.

Making comparisons to the Nazi era can be inflammatory, but it is only fair to ask: What have we learned? Whatever else we may have learned, we have failed to understand the most important lesson: There is no such thing as “a life not worth living.” As Leo Alexander would tell you, it’s the lesson that separates civilization from barbarism.

For further reading and information:

Dr. Leo Alexander, “Medical Science under Dictatorship,” New England Journal of Medicine (July 1949).

James A. Maccaro, “‘From Small Beginnings’: The Road to Genocide,” The Freeman, August 1997 (posted on Liberty Haven’s website).

Nat Hentoff, “Are certain lives not worth living?“, Jewish World Review, 27 February 2001.

Richard Miniter, “The Dutch Way of Death,” Wall Street Journal, 28 April 2001.

Terence Monmaney, “More Doctors Found Willing to Assist Suicide Medicine,” Los Angeles Times, 6 February 1997.

BreakPoint Commentary No. 030114, “Coming Soon to a Hospital Near You: ‘Futile Care’ and the Culture of Death.”

Also see “Abortion and the Holocaust, ” a recent “Worldview for Parents” page, for more information.

Wesley J. Smith, The Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America (Encounter, 2002).

Don Feder, “Killing Us with Kindness: How Liberal Compassion Hurts,” Heritage Lecture #574, The Heritage Foundation, 13 January 1997.

Learn how you can make a difference in the culture with the “BreakPoint Culture of Life Packet.” It includes the booklet “Building a Culture of Life: A Call to Respect Human Dignity in American Life” and a “BreakPoint This Week” special broadcast CD that includes an interview with Wilberforce Forum Fellow William Saunders, Human Rights Counsel and Senior Fellow in Human Life Studies for Family Research Council, along with a speech, “Bioethics and the Clash of Orthodoxies,” by Dr. Robert George.


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