Reflections of a Pastor

Monsignor John Carde MBE
Issue 29, November 2009

As I write there is uproar about funding being withdrawn from severely handicapped children. We admire the efforts of parents who care for their handicapped child – what courage they show over the long haul.

It does not seem such a quantum leap to move to the other end of life's journey to think about those who are terminally ill and who therefore need extra special care, love and attention. The debate about assisted suicide is alive once again in Europe and England and much closer to home in New Zealand and Australia.

These ethical issues were very much on my mind when I recently watched a replay of the 1946 Nuremberg Trials on the History Chanel. Perhaps there is a lesson here for us with these current debates?

The 1946 Nuremberg War Trials, and the medical trials in particular, focussed on the Nazis plan for ethnic cleansing and the disposal of the weak. Time has not assuaged the horror of the revelations. I remember one particular exchange between a defendant and one of the judges who asked, "Did you therefore sign this death warrant for three and half million Jews?" the defendant answered, "No. It was only two and half million."

In his 2004 book "Nazi Medicine and the Nuremberg Trials" Paul Julian Weindling outlines the connivance of the German/Nazi medical fraternity to conduct all sorts of bizarre experiments before the victims were finally consigned to the gas chambers, if indeed they were 'lucky' enough to survive the particular experiment.

This book is 343 pages of small print and I found it difficult to get into. But as I progressed I was like a moth attracted to flame. Page after page chronicles the sordid experimentations conducted by highly educated people of the medical profession. I will now quote extensively from the book. I would like you to carefully read the following quotes.

"Cold War medicine was characterised by state funding of medical research, while ideals of liberty attenuated the socialisation of medicine. The thrust of these developments was to exonerate the individual physician for committing medical crimes and place the blame on totalitarian politics for exploiting medicine. A handful of courageous medical philosophers warned that the epistemological ("the critical study of the validation of methods") demands of scientific medicine could themselves be destructive of human life. The Trial observers Mitscherlich and Thompson and the medical witness Leibbrand found themselves lone voices against the onward march of human experimentation and quantifications of clinical trials. Those involved in scrutinising the Nazi experiments found themselves marginalised. The Americans recruited defendants for Operation Paperclip, and the German medical establishment was poised to rehabilitate the defendants, while vilifying supporters of the Trial. The danger was that the Medical Trial legitimised Cold War exploitation of medical research, rather than safeguarding patient rights." [Weindling 2004: 297-298]

The term "Paperclip" was given to those Doctors who were used by the Allies.

"The British and Americans were concerned that the Soviets were recruiting German scientific personnel for weapons research on nuclear fission, radioactivity and aeronautics. The Western Allies screened German science for its offensive potential while talent-spotting scientists for strategic projects. The US employed in all 765 German and Austrian scientists and engineers for military research under the 'Paperclip' scheme. It was at this time that US authorities gave the Japanese bacteriologists of Unit 731, responsible for the horrific experiments in biological warfare, immunity from prosecution. The interest of the Soviets in the atrocities and in gleaning intelligence data, as well as the appetite of US chemical warfare specialists in the data on human experiments, hardened American determination to shield Takeo Ishii, the key scientific perpetrator of mass murder (of American pilot Prisoners of War). By March 1948 American policies to shield the Japanese military scientists were in place. Just as the Trial commenced, Life Magazine ran the story "Nazi Brains Help U.S. German Scientists are revealed as Army researchers". The accusation has been repeatedly levied against the Medical Trial for whitewashing scientists to allow their transfer for US defence contracts. [2004:309]

Not all of the defendants at the medical trial at Nuremberg were men. One infamous physician was Herta Oberheuser.

"By 1960 the controversy had deepened: her lawsuit to restore her title Doctor was backed by influential political supporters of the child euthanasia doctor Werner Catel. A letter to The Guardian referred not only to Oberheuser's phenol injections, but also to a professor (i.e. Ruff) involved in cold exposure continuing to be in post, as well as others who had researched on mustard gas. The case was cited as symptomatic of 120 concentration camp doctors continuing to practise in Germany. The German state authorities and German Medical Association were at first impervious to all criticisms. The East Germans raised the Oberheuser affair as part of their campaign against Adenauer's revisionism. By June 1961 legal and public pressure pressures, reinforced by the republication of the Mitscherlich-Mielke Trial report, forced Oberheuser to renounce her physician's status. [2004: 314]

"Even so, the Tuskegee study on the non-treatment of syphilis between 1932 and 1972 (an experiment in reverse by the US Public Health Service) showed that illegitimate and unethical research continued, until it was pointed out in the late 1960s that the study could be compared with German medical experiments at Dachau."

"Science as an increasingly powerful political form claimed immunity from legal and public scrutiny. Overall, we see a recasting of medical research and ethics in the chill of the deepening Cold War. Medicine shifted away from social planning to conformity to the ideology of a free world. The effort to establish principles of freedom for scientific and medical researchers required a hard exercise in the judicial scrutiny of German wartime medicine and this in turn meant that the Allied record on research ethics was questioned. The new stress on the autonomy of the research subject and patient arose. But set against these was intensification of the experimental basis of medicine in such areas as pharmacology and the application of biology to medical research. Scientists had increasing appetites for state funding, while adopting notions of the freedom of science to guarantee autonomy and immunity from public scrutiny. The experimental approach to medical science went with schemes to harness science for the defence of the free world. The upswing in human experiments ignored the safeguards enshrined in the Nuremberg Code. National security came to override the autonomy, freedoms and rights of the individual, and the quest for justice for victims of National Socialism. [2004: 341-342]

"The next stage should have been international guarantees of compensation and care for the victims and binding agreements on the humane conduct of medical research. Far-sighted and humane efforts have been repeatedly undermined and set against concerns that publicising the atrocities would destabilise – rather than strengthen – the future of clinical research. Informed consent remains a fragile asset. The effects of an unrestrained impulse to obtain medical knowledge resonate disturbingly." [2004: 343]

So where/how do I fit in? I am a Priest of 51 years who saw the Belsen news clips as a 12-15 year old. My 51 years of Priesthood contained one year in Vietnam as an Army Chaplain where I witnessed first hand the dangers of ideology taken too far on both sides. Sadly, the same has happened in Iraq.

And of course in those 51 years I have been at the bedside of many dying people. Some have had peaceful and serene deaths, others not so. But the Hospice movement has been a Godsend to all of us as palliative care has risen to new heights. Mostly it is with a sense of joy and relief when the patients told of transference to a Hospice - their eyes light with joy.

I would like to finish with a couple of observations. All the attitudes of the Nazi era are still alive and well today. Asian youth and homosexuals, to mention two classes, are often beaten up on our streets in New Zealand. Nazi attitudes are alive as far up as Formula 1 car racing. Barak Obama's US birth credentials are being challenged as Negro haters can't believe their country has an African-American President. One has just to listen to talk back to hear the opinion in which solo parents are held. And so it goes on. What about the so called 'rendering' of prisoners taking place in Cuba?

Sometimes the dying hold on to life to await a reconciliation of a relative. I've seen this many times. Who would snuff out a life, reconciliation unrequited?

For weeks her husband and daughters along with myself had been attending her dying bedside. She got lower and lower and either was unable to talk or wouldn't. Conversation between the visitors around the bedside was slow. One day I decided to tell a joke. Suddenly the quiet one, the near dead one, burst out laughing. One never knows, does one? The husband said "all the waiting for her to die was made worthwhile by that laugh."

Imagine if someone had decided her life wasn't worth living?

Monsignor John Carde MBE was Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Wellington 1991-2007. He is associate pastor of Saint Patrick's Parish on the Kapiti Coast.