March 3, 2024

Don’t misuse Nazi analogy, says bioethicist

It demeans the suffering of the Holocaust

Dragging images of Nazi atrocities in science and medicine into contemporary bioethical issues blights the debate and demeans the suffering of the Holocaust, argues a US bioethicist in the leading journal Science. Arthur Caplan, of the University of Pennsylvania, complains that the Nazi analogy often crops up in issues like euthanasia and stem cell research. This is quite misleading, he says. Nazi crimes were committed to protect the economic viability and genetic health of the state, but these ideologies have vanished and have almost nothing to do with contemporary bioethical wrangles.

Furthermore, Caplan says, it diminishes the horror of the Holocaust to compare Terri Schiavo's death with Nazi euthanasia policies or to compare embryonic stem cell research with human experiments in concentration camps. “The cavalier use of the Nazi analogy in an attempt to bolster an argument is unethical. Sixty years after the fall of the Third Reich, we owe it to those who suffered and died at the hands of the Nazis to insist that those who invoke the Nazi analogy do so with care.”

Caplan's remarks could provoke a spirited discussion in Science about the Nazi regime as a reference point for bioethics. It is not only American conservatives who remember its terrible excesses. Germany's well-known conservatism in bioethics springs from its own fears of reviving Nazi attitudes. The discipline of bioethics itself was born as a response to world revulsion at the human experiments carried out by Nazi doctors. Although pinning swastikas on policies can be nothing more than a cheap debating tactic, many people feel that there are lessons to be learned from the Nazi experience. Caplan's complaint, however, may help to define them more exactly.

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