When Science Goes Mad
This column by ACRU Senior Fellow Robert Knight was published January 21, 2011 on The Washington Times website.
On any given day, scientists jolt us with new findings – and possibilities.
The white coats in China are busily creating chimeras, the offspring of humans mated with animals (via Petri dish) in order to develop vaccines. With cloning and genetic engineering upon us, the question of whether something should be done is fast being eclipsed by what can be done. But we must keep asking the first question as if our lives depend on it.
In 1943, in “The Abolition of Man,” C.S. Lewis warned that not all scientific advances are benign because human beings are not benign:
Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.
On Jan. 14, the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va., hosted a seminar, “Use and Misuse of Neurology and Psychiatry: Lessons Learned From the Holocaust.” In a wide-ranging discussion, several medical and ethical experts connected the dots between advances in biology, genetics, psychiatry and medicine and the temptation to abuse science – always with stated good intentions.
Georgetown University professor emeritus Edmund Pellegrino, who chaired the President’s Council on Bioethics, noted that the Hippocratic Oath, which once governed medicine, “is now disassembled, its precepts challenged.”
Addressing the question of how the Holocaust could have happened in an advanced nation like Germany, he observed that the medical profession itself rather easily accepted the precepts of eugenics. Another panelist, John Hall of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, noted that eugenics had been hatched in England, developed in America, and then had jumped back over the pond for devastating implementation in Germany.
German doctors and nurses bought the idea that the “interests of the general public and of the state” took precedence “over the interests” of the patient, Dr. Pellegrino noted, adding, “No doctor felt guilty of violating medical ethics” because the profession had radically changed to conform to National Socialism’s emphasis on the state over the individual.
Before the outbreak of World War II, Dr. Hall said, America was just 10 years behind Germany and was well along in forced sterilization. After all, it was Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in the Buck v. Bell case in 1927 who coldly and famously observed:
It is better for all the world if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime – society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. … Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
Thus, the state of Virginia went ahead and sterilized the “feeble-minded” Carrie Buck. The Old Dominion had been a latecomer, adopting its compulsory-sterilization law in 1924. Indiana had begun the trend in 1907, with 32 other states following suit.
In Germany, the Nazis took note of America’s sterilization campaign and began their own program, sterilizing married couples who had noticeable “defects” so they could not pass on those characteristics to children. This quickly evolved to euthanasia of mentally and physically handicapped people. Patricia Heberer, a historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, chronicled how the “mass euthanasia campaign preceded the Final Solution [the killing of 6 million Jews] by two years.” She noted during her presentation that at one point, 45 percent of German doctors were members of the Nazi Party.
“They began with disabled children and infants, and expanded it up to 17 years old,” she said. Shortly thereafter, the T-4 program, which was carried out from 1939 to 1945, killed 200,000 to 250,000 people deemed “unfit.” This was in addition to the millions of Jews slain in the death camps. When American troops arrived at one sanitarium two weeks after the war ended in May 1945, they found doctors and nurses still busy killing “anyone no longer useful,” including wounded German soldiers.
Scientific advances are a two-edged sword, as C.S. Lewis observed. As genetic engineering becomes more doable, the temptation will increase to tamper with human life. We already are far along that track.
Monday, the March for Life observes the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade (1973), which opened the door to 52 million abortions of unborn children in America.
Many Holocaust survivors resent comparison of legal abortion with their own unmitigated horrors, and I’m mindful of their sensitivities. However, Lewis’ warning about the mortal dangers of man’s unchecked pride apply anywhere that human beings are treated as disposable.
Professor James Giordano of the Potomac Institute opened the Jan. 14 seminar by noting that in terms of research, the 1990s were “the decade of the brain, the 2000s were the decade of the mind, and the 2010s are the decade of pain control.”
How far will we go to eradicate pain and enhance pleasure? As we careen toward the brave new world of engineered human beings in a land of abortion on demand, each “advance” must be weighed as to how it will affect the weakest and most defenseless among us.
An outspoken Christian, Lewis found hope in the natural, God-given love that still governs: “We may well thank the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses.”
In Deuteronomy 30:19, Moses conveys God’s view: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live.” The law needs to reflect the divinely inspired moral order. Thomas Jefferson not only thought that “all men are endowed by their Creator” with the right to life, but gave it top priority among man’s “unalienable rights.”
“The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government.”