A century later, Nazi doctors working in German concentration camps used prisoners whom they considered less than human for equally barbaric—and even less justifiable—experiments. The world’s response to these experiments would mark the beginnings of modern bioethics.
In 1933, the German people voted the Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler into power. At that time, Germany’s medical schools and researchers were respected worldwide, and its health care system was considered one of the world’s best.
Shortly after coming to power, the Nazi government passed the Law for the Prevention of Congenitally Ill Progeny. This law required the sterilization of anyone considered likely to give birth to children with diseases that doctors considered genetic, including mental retardation, schizophrenia, manic depression, epilepsy, blindness, deafness, or alcoholism. Under this law, government- employed doctors sterilized between 200,000 and 300,000 persons. Two years later, in 1935, the government passed the Law to Protect Genetic Health, which prohibited the marriage of persons with certain diseases.
Both these laws reflected a belief in eugenics, the theory that the population should be “improved” through selective breeding and birth control. The eugenics movement has had many followers throughout the Western world. By 1920, 25 U.S. states had passed laws allowing the sterilization of those believed (usually incorrectly) to carry genes for mental retardation or criminality. Several states also passed laws forbidding the marriage of persons with illnesses considered genetic.
As the power of the Nazis grew in Germany and as public response to their actions both within and outside Germany proved mild, the Nazis adopted ever bolder eugenic actions. Beginning in 1939, the Nazis began systematically killing patients in state mental hospitals. Doctors played a central role in this program, selecting patients for death and supervising their poi- soning with lethal drugs or carbon monoxide gas. Doctors and nurses also watched silently while many more patients starved to death. In total, between 80,000 and 100,000 adults and 5,000 children died. Doctors played similar roles in Nazi concentration camps where millions of Jews, Roma, and others died. In addition, doctors working in these concentra- tion camps (including university professors and highly respected senior medical researchers) performed hundreds of unethical experiments on prisoners—such as studying how quickly individuals would die when exposed to freezing cold and whether injecting dye into prisoners’ eyes would change their eye color. Doctors also used prisoners to gain surgical experience by, for example, removing healthy ovaries or kidneys or creating wounds on which to practice surgical treatments.