To inquire into connections between the Holocaust and bioethical debates today assumes a hopeful estimate of the human capacity for reasonable discourse. Perhaps too hopeful. In the view of many, any suggestion that there may be analogies between the way they were and the way we are, between what they did and what we are doing and proposing to do, is simply intolerable. The very suspicion of such similarities is too painful to bear. As Eliot observes in Murder in the Cathedral, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”
Reasonable discourse requires a measure of dispassion, a critical distancing of ourselves from our emotions, intentions, and interests. This is not easy for any of us, and the higher the stakes the more strongly are our defensive resources engaged. The stakes in the debates under discussion are very high indeed: Who shall live? Who shall die? Who does, and who does not, belong to the community for which we accept common responsibility? Most of us want to defend most particularly our intentions, our inward dispositions. We may acknowledge that we make mistakes, even that we have done the wrong thing, but we adamantly insist that we meant to do good. If we do not exercise care, reasonable discourse about right and wrong can easily be swamped by the language of intentionality.
Please note that I am here using the term “Holocaust” inclusively in order to cover the constellation of crimes against humanity that we associate with the Third Reich. Of course the term is often used to refer only to the genocide against the Jews. But in that limited sense the Holocaust has little relevance to bioethical debates today. Nobody of influence in our society, thank God, is proposing the elimination of Jews. Nor, we do well to remember, did the Nazis one day up and decide it would be a great idea to kill six million Jews, and millions of other “subhuman” human beings. The way to crimes against humanity was prepared by peculiar ways of thinking about humanity. As Richard Weaver famously insisted, “Ideas have consequences.” The Holocaust was, in largest part, the consequence of ideas about human nature, human rights, the imperatives of history and scientific progress, the character of law, the bonds and obligations of political community. It is above all in the exploration of ideas that we can most usefully discuss the metaphors and analogies between then and now.
Please note also–and this must be said most emphatically–the present essay is an exploration and not an accusation. The purpose is to examine the value judgments and moral reasonings that inform current debates and practices, and to reflect on their similarities and dissimilarities with the Holocaust. If I suggest that a certain line of reasoning is disturbingly reminiscent of the Holocaust, I am not suggesting that those who think that way are morally equivalent to the perpetrators of the Holocaust. The stipulation throughout is that all the participants in current debates intend to do good and not evil.
The focus here is on ideas and their use as justifying rationales for doing this or that. The debates will continue and, if they are to be both civil and clarifying debates, it is important that we not impugn the motives of those with whom we disagree. Intentions are not everything, but neither are they nothing. The present examination is for each of us also a self-examination. It assumes that, as we believe ourselves to be capable of great good, we know we are also capable of great evil, our intentions notwithstanding. If that assumption is not shared, this discussion is, in the dismissive sense of the term, no more than an academic exercise. If we know in advance that we could not and will not commit crimes against humanity, the question posed by this essay has already been answered and we could stop right here.
One kind of reaction to the question posed is described by two participants in last year’s National Institutes of Health panel on fetal transplantation. Their minority report (This World, Summer 1989) observes, “Another vindication of fetal research with aborted tissue was grounded on the assumption that our inward dispositions alone determine the ethical value of our behavior. Several senior research sponsors expressed to the Panel their indignation that the work to which they had dedicated years of good will could be considered exploitative. They resented having their integrity appraised by reference to anything but their good intentions.” As we shall see, this very insistence upon the sufficiency of intention has its counterpart in the experience of the Holocaust.
Our subject is the way they were and the way we are, what they did and what we are doing and proposing to do. The question is one of likenesses and unlikenesses, of similarities and dissimilarities, between then and now. A prior question concerns the very legitimacy of inquiring into comparisons between the Holocaust and present developments in bioethics. I believe that such an inquiry is not only legitimate but necessary. It is morally imperative that all of us who live after the Holocaust examine ourselves and our actions by reference to that moment of awesome truth.
The invocation of the Holocaust must be undertaken with most particular caution and clarity. For those of us in the West, the Holocaust is probably the only culturally available icon of absolute evil. Any “revisionist” efforts to deny or diminish the horror of the Holocaust are, quite rightly, deemed to be beyond the pale of responsible discourse. It is not only the so-called revisionists, however, who distort the Holocaust and its continuing pertinence. There are those who insist upon the uniqueness, the utter singularity, of the Holocaust in a manner that consigns it to the unusable past. If the Holocaust is like nothing else, it is relevant to nothing else.
As we must attend to similarities between then and now, we must also attend to dissimilarities. There are dangers in universalizing or generalizing the Holocaust in ways that obscure the historical particularity of the event and that obscure, as well, the particular ideas, decisions, actions, and attitudes that are the parts that make up the whole of what we call the Holocaust. We intend to honor the victims when we speak of the “six million” or the “ten million,” but both killed and killers should, as much as possible, be recalled by name, for they had names. The Holocaust was not the abstraction we call a period of history but a succession of mornings and afternoons and evenings, much like this day. It was a tangled combination of innumerable actions and consequences, of careers and ambitions, of fears and loyalties, of flirtations with the unthinkable turning into the routines of the unexceptionable. To most of those involved, the icon of evil did not present itself whole. It happened an hour at a time, an equivocation at a time, a lie at a time, a decision at a time, a decision evaded at a time. There is great wisdom in Hannah Arendt’s description of the Holocaust in terms of “the banality of evil.”
A generalized Holocaust is deprived of its power to caution and instruct. A generalized Holocaust is a depersonalized Holocaust, replacing persons with statistics, with allegedly inexorable forces of history. Raskolnikov, the murderer in Crime and Punishment, well understood the uses of generalization. “Anyway, to hell with it! Let them [die]! That’s how it should be, they say. It’s essential, they say, that such a percentage should every year go–that way–to the devil–it’s essential so that the others should be kept fresh and healthy and not be interfered with. A percentage! What fine words they use, to be sure! So soothing. Scientific. All you have to do is say ‘percentage’ and all your worries are over. Now, of course, if you used some other word–well, then perhaps it would make you feel a little uncomfortable.”
The discussion at hand would be a failure were we not made to feel uncomfortable. The more subtle truth is that it would be an even greater failure were we made to feel more comfortable because we feel uncomfortable. Our discomfort testifies to our moral integrity, or so we like to think. The suspicion is not entirely unwarranted that the relatively new profession of bioethics was established to cater to our discomfort and thus to relieve our discomfort. There are things we would not do without professional permission; what is morally doubtful must be certified by expertly guided anguish. In connection with so many life and death questions today we hear much talk about difficult and anguishing decisions. Anguish, it seems, covers a multitude of sins. In pondering analogies with the Holocaust, we may be inclined to think that this is what distinguishes us from them: we know what we are doing, we recognize and openly discuss the potential risks and potential wrongs, and our decisions are accompanied by the prescribed quota of anguish.
Please do not misunderstand. The emergence of the profession of bioethics does testify to our culture’s moral sensitivity. Maybe the profession has prevented and will prevent moral enormities that might otherwise be perpetrated. With respect to what was not thought before, or with respect to what was thought and thought to be unthinkable before, bioethics may be producing more preventions than permissions. I do not know, and I do not know if such a calculation is even possible. Would developments similar to those of the Holocaust be better kept at bay were there no discipline called bioethics? That is eminently debatable. Is professional bioethics in any sense an independent variable, so to speak, or simply the mistress of the “hard” disciplines it is employed to serve? Again, I do not know, although I know and am encouraged by the fact that there are those in the field who are not indifferent to these questions about their work. I am reliably informed that the most typical Jewish telegram reads: “Start worrying. Letter to follow.” One does not have to be Jewish to recognize that worry and anguish can be signs of health. With respect to current and proposed medical and biological practices, the letter is arriving page by page and we know that there is a good deal to worry about. It is easy to be alarmist; it is easier still to deny that there is cause for alarm. I am convinced that there are unmistakable similarities between what they did then and what we are doing now. They too asked and answered the question, Who shall live and who shall die? And, Who belongs to the community entitled to our protection? Then and now, the subject at hand is killing, and letting die, and helping to die, and using the dead. Then and now, the goal is to produce healthier human beings and, perhaps, a better quality of human being. It will not do to say that the difference is that our intentions are good while theirs were evil or that they were cruel and callous while we are sensitive and caring. Good intentions and delicate sensibilities are not moral arguments. Anyone familiar with the literature of the Holocaust knows all too well how its perpetrators invoked good intentions and evidences of moral sensitivity to justify their actions, both during and after the fact. We are inclined to dismiss such appeals as smarmy sentimentality and self-serving rationalization, and understandably so. But it is not always sufficiently clear on what grounds we so easily dismiss their justifications, thus denying any similarity between them and us. Sometimes we seem to be saying that we are not like them because we are not like them. Obviously, that tautology does not satisfy.
We earnestly say, “Never Again!” It would make no sense to say “Never Again!” unless we believed that it could happen again. With the cry “Never Again!” we aim to stir our society from the smug and irrational confidence that it cannot happen here. Of course then is not now, and there is not here, and they are not us. If or when it happens again, we will, to paraphrase Mr. Sinatra’s song, do it our way. Since those who do it may continue to be in charge, since there may never be the equivalent of the Nuremberg trials, it will be called not Holocaust but Progress. We need never fear the charge of crimes against humanity so long as we hold the power to define who does and who does not belong to “humanity.”
Emil Fackenheim has wisely said, “We must grant Hitler no posthumous victories.” It would seem to follow that we must not grant Hitler the posthumous victory of hiding from ourselves what we are capable of doing, what we may already be doing. Elie Wiesel has written, “If we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices . . . . I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” The use of the first person plural, “we,” underscores the fact of moral agency, and moral responsibility. The Holocaust began in depersonalizing the victims and ended in depersonalizing the perpetrators. The decisions and actions that we are discussing here are not undertaken by the “logic of history,” nor by “medical science,” nor by “technological progress,” nor by “the imperatives of research.” They are undertaken by us, the first person plural composed of first persons singular. Moral agents have names. To seek escape in anonymity, to blame forces beyond our control for decisions within our control, is already to have granted Hitler a posthumous victory.
Samuel and Pearl Oliner recently published a book that, in my judgment, has not received the attention it deserves. The Altruistic Personality is based upon in-depth interviews with hundreds of people who, at great risk to their own lives and the lives of their families, rescued Jews from the Holocaust. The Oliners ask what distinguished the rescuers from the overwhelming majority of people who averted their eyes from what was happening, or were actively complicit in what afterwards were called crimes against humanity. Their conclusion is that the rescuers were distinguished not by their educational level, nor by their political views, nor by any other number of variables that might be supposed. They were not even distinguished by their attitudes toward Jews as such.
They were different in two critical respects. They typically had strong ties to communities that espoused rather straightforward and unsophisticated understandings of right and wrong. And they uniformly had an unquenchable sense of personal moral agency. One after another, they told the Oliners that they could not have lived with themselves–and, many added, they could not have answered to God–if they had not done what they had done.
They had been told that what was happening was not their responsibility, that an entirely new situation demanded anguishing decisions that could no longer be avoided, that scientific and historical necessity required a rethinking of familiar values, that traditional views had to give way to the inexorable course of progress, that short-term sacrifices of customary ways was the price of long-term advancement, and that, in any event, people wiser than themselves had thought these things through with great care, and who were they to challenge the experts and those in authority? All this they were told, and all this they refused to believe. They refused to surrender their knowledge of moral agency. As many would still say today, they refused to surrender their souls. They refused to grant Hitler that victory. In the debate over abortion there has been much discussion surrounding “the seamless garment” as a metaphor for the so-called “life issues.” I will not here enter into that debate within a debate, except to note that evil, like good, does seem to weave a pattern. We are considering here the finished pattern that we call the Holocaust. The finished product may not be seamless, there are disruptions and disjunctions here and there, but the end result is of a piece. And so it is with current debates in bioethics.
Consider, for instance, the NIH panel on fetal transplantation. The majority report is touchingly eager in its insistence that fetal transplantation should be and can be separated from the question of abortion. Commenting on the statement of Elie Wiesel cited above, the minority report says: “Wiesel is saying that even by acquiescent silence after the fact we can sign on as parties to a deed already done. But what we are considering here is no mere post mortem silence, no simple averting of the gaze after the fact. We are considering an institutional partnership, federally sponsored and financed, whereby the bodily remains of abortion victims become a regularly supplied medical commodity.”
The minority makes a convincing case, I believe, that the majority deludes itself if it really thinks that the question of fetal transplants can be isolated from the question of how the fetuses are obtained. The minority report, written by James Bopp and James Burtchaell, points out that fetal transplantation would almost certainly increase the number of abortions, compound the collusion between medical healing and medicalized killing, and prepare the way for other steps that would not only parallel but replicate actions associated with the Holocaust. In an important sense, this minority report is saying nothing new. Dr. Johnson famously observed that mankind needs less to be instructed than to be reminded. In this instance, we need to be reminded of the War Crimes Trial in Nuremberg known as “The Medical Case.”
That trial produced the Nuremberg Code of 1946 that began to provide protection for human subjects of research and inspired, in due course, the Declarations of Helsinki in 1964 and 1975. The minority report observes, “Without Nuremberg and its judgment the world’s conscience might never have gazed head on at the intrinsic depravity of the doctor’s defense . . . . The insight of Nuremberg taught us that when we take possession of others, when their bodies are forcibly delivered up to be used as we wish, then no antecedent good will and no subsequent scientific yield will absolve us from having been confederates in their oppression . . . . The Nazi doctors had learned the ethic of their profession: that a physician may not relieve one human being’s affliction at the cost of another fellow human’s suffering. But they contrived to believe that if an associate had already done the subjugating and they then did the healing oriented research, they could divide the responsibility down the middle. The Tribunal and the world judged otherwise–and condemned the researchers for it all.”
The chief defendant at Nuremberg, the notorious Dr. Karl Brandt, had once hoped to join Dr. Albert Schweitzer in his humanitarian work in Africa. He testified to the court of his great anguish in having to do things in the “interests of the community” when confronted by the “hard necessity” of finding ways to protect the population against death and epidemics. Toward that end, the State, the “law of the land,” gave him permission to experiment on human subjects put at his disposal. Dr. Brandt declared, “There is no prohibition against daring to progress.”
We should not avoid asking ourselves the painfully obvious question: Do we now think that the judgment at Nuremberg was in error? Was the “doctor’s defense” right after all? Should the Dr. Brandts of the Holocaust have been acquitted? There are many today who seem to be answering those questions in the affirmative, at least by implication. More commonly, they condemn what the doctors did then while approving what the doctors do now, without addressing the differences between then and now in principle, actual practice, or justifying rationale. When challenged on the similarities between then and now, many of our contemporaries are reflexively offended by the suggestion that such a comparison might even be thought worthy of consideration. A rabbinical dictum has it that we should “place fences around the law.” The idea is that restraints and prohibitions should be in place to prevent us from reaching, or at least impede our progress toward, the point of absolute and damning transgression. There should at least be safety rails around the abyss. Perhaps the best that our culture can provide are signposts warning against the danger ahead. The judgment at Nuremberg was such a signpost. It is no longer secure. Perhaps the signpost has been taken down. The Hippocratic Oath was another such signpost. It was. Leon Kass of the University of Chicago has written persuasively about the ominous implications in current revisions of and, in effect, abandonments of the Hippocratic Oath in medical schools today. When the fences and the safety rails have been removed, when the signposts have been changed or taken down, what reason is there to believe that people in our time will not do what was done then? The confidence that they will not, it is to be feared, is based on little more than sentimental naivete and the unseemly hubris of our assumed moral superiority to “them.”
But now, it may be objected, the introduction of the issue of fetal transplants and its connection with abortion has turned the discussion toward a subject that some would prefer to avoid, namely abortion. It is said that the important debates in bioethics must move “beyond” the question of abortion. The abortion debate is weary, and we have no doubt all been wearied by it. What that is new could possibly be said in the abortion debate? Perhaps nothing. But again we are reminded of Dr. Johnson’s axiom that we have more need to be reminded than to be instructed-or than to be engaged by “new insights.” Whether by inherent logic or by historical accident, almost every controverted question in bioethics is entangled with the question of abortion. Again and again, we discover that we cannot go around, but must once more go through, the abortion debate. Before us are questions about who shall live and who shall die; questions about killing, letting die, helping to die, and using the dead; questions about what or who belongs to the community of legal protection-and when a “what” becomes a “who,” and when, at the end of life, a “who” becomes a “what.”
Even if some of the great questions that occupy bioethics might theoretically be isolated from the question of abortion, they seldom can be in cultural and political fact. Whether by inherent logic or by historical accident, the abortion debate has become the magnet to which all the other life-and death-debates are attached. We can try to pull them away from that debate, but they are inexorably drawn back to it. Leaving aside for the moment the prochoice arguments in favor of the abortion liberty, it is clear that great science-based industries, trajectories of medical experimentation, and perhaps the profession of bioethics itself rest in large part upon the settlement articulated in Roe v. Wade and related decisions. It is equally clear that that settlement is today no longer settled. In ways even more relentless and entangled than at present, arguments about what we insist are “other” questions will be emerging from and returning to the question of abortion. A measure of moral clarity and societal consensus can only be achieved on the far side of the abortion debate, and that far side is not yet within sight.
Those who support the abortion liberty are understandably outraged when their opponents compare the more than 25 million abortions since Roe v. Wade with the Holocaust. And it must be noted that the Holocaust is often invoked recklessly and unfeelingly by anti-abortionists, as though it were simply another convenient stick with which to beat the opposition. In such cases, the only culturally available icon of absolute evil–a precious thing for any culture to possess–is dangerously debased. At the same time, however, we must ask: If one believes that 25 million abortions are equivalent to 25 million instances of the taking of innocent human life, does not the analogy with the Holocaust become more appropriate? Perhaps even inevitable? The cultural and political reality is that millions of Americans, a majority of Americans, believe that abortion is precisely that–the taking of an innocent human life. The same Americans are not in agreement on what that perception of reality should mean in terms of abortion law, but, if we believe in a society governed by democratic discourse and decision, that perception of reality and the consideration of its legal ramifications cannot be ruled out of order. One of the lawyers who prosecuted the Nazis in the war crimes trials explained how people could have acted so savagely: “There is only one step to take. You may not think it possible to take it; but I assure you that men I thought decent men did take it. You have only to decide that one group of human beings have lost human rights.” But, the objection is heard, such an observation is irrelevant to our discussion of bioethics and the Holocaust. In abortion, in fetal transplants, in embryo experimentation, in new methods of fertilization, in withdrawing food and water from the comatose–in all these instances, we may want to object, we are not dealing with “human beings.” But we must ask whether such an objection is not touchingly naive. It assumes one favored outcome of the debate that is still underway over who or what is a human being. It will not do to employ the dubious rhetorical device of declaring that the other party must be wrong because I am right.
“There is only one step to take,” the prosecutor said. In the case of the debates in which we are now embroiled, I suspect that step was in the adoption of the idea of “quality of life” as an indicator of who is and who is not to count as a human being. Then they spoke of lebensunwertes Leben, life that is unworthy of life. It is by no means clear to many thoughtful people how we, in principle or in practice, distinguish lebensunwertes Leben from a “quality of life index.” But, we insist, it should be clear. After all, in the Holocaust they were killing actual human beings, people who were undeniably, not just potentially or marginally, real people with real rights. But, once again, it seems that we are found to be begging the question. It is exactly the point that they did deny what we take to be undeniable. Similarly, with respect to issues such as abortion, fetal experimentation, and euthanasia, many today deny what an earlier generation and, it would seem, most Americans today take to be undeniable.
That Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Slavs, and others were not human beings in the “full meaning of the term” ( Roe v. Wade ) was the doctrine of the Third Reich. Such people were clearly not included in the community of legal rights, protections, and entitlements. Such was the law of the land; such was the view of those who were declared to be “the best and the brightest” of that society. Who was to say that they were wrong? A relatively few daring souls, such as Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said they were wrong, and paid with their lives. They said the Nazis were wrong on the basis of clear reason, civilizational tradition (remember the fences and signposts), and biblical faith.
And the rescuers studied by the Oliners said they were wrong, and acted courageously on that conviction. Some of them explained their actions in terms similar to those articulated by the Bonhoeffers. Many others, it seems, acted because that is the way they had been taught to act; they could not act differently and still be themselves. Others seem to have acted instinctively, intuitively. They had, one might say, a nose for evil. They were a small minority, acting outside the law and against the law, in a society that acknowledged no law other than the flat of the State. It requires no great leap of creative imagination to see the parallels, at least with respect to their social placement and psychology, between the rescuers then and anti-abortion efforts such as Operation Rescue now.
I have written elsewhere about what I believe is accurately described as “the return of eugenics” (Commentary , July 1988). By that phrase I mean to include most of the controverted issues in bioethics–from fetal farming and harvesting to infanticide and assisted suicide. We tell ourselves that these issues are raised by medical and technological advances, and so we seek to reduce our sense of moral agency and responsibility. We are closer to the truth, I believe, if we acknowledge that the debates in which we are embroiled are the products of moral, cultural, and political change.
Christopher Lasch has recently and insightfully written about “the engineering of the good life” (This World , Summer 1989). He notes that there are no longer freak shows at carnivals and county fairs. The reason for that, we tell ourselves, is that as a society we have become more sensitive to the handicapped, or, as we are tutored to say, “the differently advantaged.” Lasch suspects that this may be a convenient self-deception. The reason there are no more freak shows, he suggests, is that we have become a society that has no place for freaks.
At Nuremberg the prosecution argued that the killing programs unfolded from one another, that the genocide of the six millionth Jew was somehow unleashed by the morphine overdose given the first harelipped child. Judgment at Nuremberg was premised upon the now frequently derided notion of the slippery slope. Those who deride and dismiss that metaphor are, I believe, rejecting the commonsensical observation that one thing is connected with another, and one thing frequently leads to another. If we give ourselves permission to do one thing, we are inescapably inviting the question about permission to do the next thing. Most current debates in bioethics have less to do with technological progress than with moral permissions. In largest part, the profession of bioethics is the Permissions Office of contemporary medical and biological science. Bioethicists are permitted to give out permission slips, with the understanding that, after due and anguished deliberation, permission will not be denied. It is the bold bioethicist who dares to say, and continues to say, No. As he or she may quickly discover, the profession leaves such sensitive souls behind as the discussion moves on to the next thing.
It is easy to be alarmist; it is easier to deny the reason for alarm. We say we know the difference between questionable human life and undeniable human life, while it is evident to all but the willfully blind that lives once thought to be undeniably human are now thrown into question. Again, the awesome step was taken with Roe v. Wade . In the lethal illogic of that decision, it might be suggested, we encountered our first harelipped child. The late Paul Ramsey tirelessly reminded us that we should not give ourselves a principle of permission to do what we want if the same principle permits the doing of what we abhor. A principle established by the scrupulous is no longer the exclusive property of the scrupulous. It is public and it is entrenched in practice, there to be exploited by others who view our abhorrence as no more than irrational squeamishness.
We think of the Holocaust as a rampage of irrationality, but as we tend to overlook the banality of evil so also we overlook the rationality of evil. Consider a recent and acclaimed work in this area, Science and the Unborn by Clifford Grobstein. Dr. Grobstein is by no means a man of evil intention. On the contrary, he is a biologist and embryologist of distinction who, we are assured by noted bioethicists, possesses exquisitely attuned ethical sensitivities. Grobstein knows that a great weakness of the prochoice argument in the abortion debate is that it downplayed or dismissed concern about what it is, or who it is, that is being terminated in abortion. The American people, he recognizes, insist that that concern not be treated lightly.
As a scientist, Grobstein acknowledges that even the zygote, and of course the embryo, is “human to the core.” If abortion policy and policies that permit non-therapeutic experiments with the unborn are to be stabilized, they must be, he says, both rational and sensitive to the views of “a moral society.” Religious beliefs opposed to what Dr. Grobstein proposes are deemed by him to be irrational, especially if they are Roman Catholic or fundamentalist (he tends to conflate the two). Therefore a rational policy must finally be devised and implemented by experts in national and local commissions. Their task, says Grobstein, is one of “status assignment” with respect to who is and who is not to be treated as a person with rights. Not all who are given status assignment as human beings are also given “protective status assignment.” It depends on how they come out when measured by an index of “quality of life.” Those who are in charge of assigning status can also reassign status. Grobstein is primarily concerned about the treatment and uses of the unborn, but he acknowledges that his approach also has clear implications for the reassignment of the born, especially the elderly and the gravely handicapped. Nonetheless, he assures us that “in the short term” the application of the approach he advocates can be limited to the early stages of life. It is important to note that the lethal use of the embryo, for example, does not diminish its human status, according to Grobstein. On the contrary, its human dignity is enhanced by its sacrifice of its life for the betterment of humanity through, for example, medical experiments and fertilization procedures.
A key component in Grobstein’s argument is deserving of most particular attention. He acknowledges that even the “preembryo” has “biological membership in the human community” and must be respected for its “profound potential” to become “an individual in the fullest sense, an undeniable person.” Then this: Such respect is appropriate “so long as [the unborn] has a reasonable probability of continuing development to become an infant and then an adult.” But note: “The situation is transformed if, for whatever reason, a particular preembryo has no reasonable prospect of developing further.” And why does it have no reasonable prospect of developing further? The answer is very simple: Because we have decided to terminate it. We have not deprived it of its potential life because, by virtue of our decision, it had no potential life. In that case, Grobstein writes, the unborn “need only be assessed and valued for its then-existing properties without reference to what it might have become in a normal human life history.”
The doctrine being propounded could not be more clear: With respect to human dignity and human rights, the reality is what we define it to be. There are no prior rights that are there for us to respect. Rights are created by our assignment of rights. Grobstein explicitly states that the idea of “unalienable rights” endowed by Nature and Nature’s God can have no place in bioethical discussions. As philosophers might put it, the objects of abortion, medical experimentation, and other measures have no ontological status. They may have a social-political status if we choose to assign them such status. They are what we agree to say they are. And the “we” who do the agreeing are, when it comes down to it, the experts who are capable of making rational definitions untainted by the religious and other prejudices of what Grobstein calls “the frozen past.” Clifford Grobstein and his argument are in the mainstream of current bioethical debates. We know they are in the mainstream because those who define the mainstream (e.g., Daniel Callahan and Richard McCormick) say they are in the mainstream. We might have chosen for illustrative purposes any number of other books or articles. It is not accurate to say that the argument advanced by Clifford Grobstein and others is reminiscent of the Nazi doctors. In critical respects, it is a replication of the argument advanced by the Nazi doctors. Those who remember remember where they heard this kind of reasoning before. Dr. Karl Brandt and his colleagues argued this way almost fifty years ago. At Nuremberg the civilized world rejected their argument. Now it seems that we are reconsidering that rejection. The suspicion may not be entirely unwarranted that, to the degree that we are reconsidering, we are the less civilized. I emphasize that the point here is not that abortion, embryo experiments, and other practices are morally equivalent to what was done in the Holocaust. There are many and important differences, and distinctions must be made. My point is simply that some justifying arguments for such practices today are very much like the arguments employed in the Holocaust, and that is reason for deepest concern.
In addressing connections between the Holocaust and contemporary bioethical debates, I have tried to limit myself to similar habits of mind and patterns of reasoning. There are many other analogies that might have been mentioned, each of them worthy of an essay in its own right. For instance, the euphemized vocabulary of death, by which we employ language that conceals from ourselves and others what we are doing and what we are proposing to do. For another instance, the high stakes of wealth, power, and prestige that have been invested in current and developing technology and practice. And there is much else that is much like the Holocaust, but enough already.
I do not wish to end on a note suggesting despair. We should not grant Hitler a posthumous victory by succumbing to doctrines of historical or technological inevitability. Then is not now, and there is not here and they are not us. The banality of evil speaks of the everydayness of evil, of decisions made day by day, on days no doubt much like this day. And remembering the banality of evil can remind us also of the banality of virtue. Virtue, as Aristotle tells us, is a matter of habits, and, as Dr. Johnson tells us, a matter of remembering. Our time is not so new as we sometimes like to think. Demystified of the techniques and the professional jargon, the hard questions facing us today are, at their heart, the questions faced by the prophets of old. Who is my neighbor? To whom am I neighbor? Recognizing this truth does not give us the answer to all our bioethical disputes, but it does keep before us the questions that we are answering.
The broken fences around the law can be repaired, and new fences can be erected. The safety rail surrounding the abyss can be strengthened. The signposts of Hippocrates and Nuremberg can be retrieved and refurbished. These things can be done; we cannot know whether they will be done. I confess that I draw encouragement from the way in which, in the last seventeen years, a democratic people, opposing almost every establishment of the society, has refused to acquiesce in the lethal illogic of Roe v. Wade. But there is still a very long way to go. Every step we take is shadowed by the Holocaust. The way they were is, in important respects, ominously like the way we are. But that past need not be our future. The very fact that there is a public discussion about contemporary bioethics and the Holocaust may be taken as a sign of determination that that not be our future.
Never again? We simply do not know. We do not need to know. Eliot had it right: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
Richard John Neuhaus is Editor-in-Chief of First Things . This essay is based on a paper delivered to a conference on Bioethics and the Holocaust sponsored by the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Minnesota.