The Seduction of Science To Perfect an Imperfect Race

Allen L. Barker alb at
Thu Apr 22 14:20:31 EST 2004

The Seduction of Science To Perfect an Imperfect Race
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 22, 2004; Page C01

Josef Mengele, the death camp doctor whose name is synonymous with
Nazi sadism, makes only a brief appearance in the new Holocaust
Memorial Museum exhibition "Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master
Race." He is there, almost as a footnote, surrounded by his ilk, and
more to the point, by the trappings, the prestige and the dignity of
science. Mengele, as a criminal, is a symbol for a larger travesty,
and it is that larger crime, the use and abuse of science in the name
of Nazism, that the new exhibition examines.

"Deadly Medicine," which opens today and runs through October 2005, is
so cogent and chilling it's worth seeing twice. Go through the first
time the way curator Susan Bachrach intended, beginning with the fears
and anxieties of Germany just after its devastating loss in the first
World War. Defeat, poverty and the rise of urbanization made Germans
fear their culture was losing its identity and its resilience. But
rising to the challenge of saving Germany was a nexus of doctors,
reformers and scientists who promised relief. Mankind, looked at
objectively, could make itself healthier: by having healthier babies,
tracing and eliminating genetic defects and preventing disease and
"deviancy" -- alcoholism, prostitution and other "urban" ills -- from
spreading throughout the society and from one generation to the
next. All of these efforts, including a sinister strain of racism
(let's keep the German bloodline pure and healthy), were grouped under
the loose field of "eugenics."

 From an exploration of the rise of eugenics, the exhibit leads
inexorably, methodically and incrementally to the Nazi era of forced
sterilization, euthanasia and, finally, concentration camps, mass
killings and the ovens of Auschwitz. Illustrating a complex
interweaving of ideas are exhibits that show the wide appeal, to both
the political left and the right, of eugenic thinking (which dated
back to the 19th century). Calipers for measuring the body, trays of
glass eyes for determining eye color and anthropological mug shots
show the scientific fascination with documenting the spectrum of human
variation. Posters show a concern with women's reproductive health;
there's also propaganda material encouraging young couples to make
genetically advantageous marriages. Documenting the other end of this
long and tragic evolution of thought is an asbestos mitt, used by the
people who stoked the crematoriums where the bodies of the disabled
were incinerated.

At every step in this tragic progress a moral threshold is
crossed. Why it was crossed, then and there, in Hitler's Germany, is
open to endless debate. But as the museum's director, Sara
J. Bloomfield, says in the catalogue to the exhibition, "During the
Holocaust, every institution established to uphold civilized values
failed -- the academy, the media, the judiciary, law enforcement, the
churches, the government and, yes, the medical and scientific
disciplines as well."

So much for the virtues of civil society, and so much for the hallowed
purity of science.

Now go through the exhibition a second time, starting with the most
distinctive failure of German society, the death camps, and strip away
each of the peculiarly German "twists" that happened to science and
medicine in the years leading up to Hitler's regime. Suddenly, this is
an exhibition about problems that are universal to science and
medicine, about the arrogance of the Enlightenment and the willingness
of thinkers to collaborate with ideologues, all of which is deeply

"We've shown this to a lot of physicians, and they respond very
uniquely to it," Bachrach says. "Some of them get very defensive about

Doctors can watch exemplars of their field, famous pediatricians,
become instrumental in euthanizing children with birth
defects. Anthropologists and other scientists will see how easy it was
to cross the very fine line between gathering data on people from
other cultures and using that data to divide people into racial
classes, hierarchically arranged. One of the way stations en route to
killing 6 million Jews was figuring out just what a Jew was, and
science was more than happy to assist in making the distinction.

Visitors who may like to think that Germany was particularly
exceptional in its pursuit of eugenics will find no comfort
either. Early in the exhibit, there is space devoted to eugenics in
other countries. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.'s Supreme Court decision of
1927, which affirmed Virginia's right to sterilize Carrie Buck, a
supposedly "feebleminded" woman, is plastered on the wall. The message
is as repellent as the language is seductive: "It is better for all
the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for
crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent
those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind." And
referring to Buck's mother, who was also considered feebleminded, and
her daughter, who it was assumed must be feebleminded, he concluded in
words that have become infamous: "Three generations of imbeciles are

This was not one of those occasional hiccups of nastiness the court
gives us from time to time. America, in fact, was a leader in the
eugenics movement.

"By 1933, by the time the Nazi sterilization law gets passed," says
Paul Lombardo, professor of bioethics and law at the University of
Virginia, "there are about 20 states in America that already have
sterilization laws. Hitler praises American eugenicist policies in
'Mein Kampf.' "

Hitler praised eugenics, but eugenics was not a crazed Hitlerian
fantasy. It was established science in the Western world and it didn't
go away after Hitler demonstrated the danger of using it as social
policy. Eugenics wasn't even pseudoscience. Science is what scientists
agree it is, and although there were scientific critics of eugenics
(which was based on a developing and often flawed understanding of
genetics), eugenicists were not outside the scientific mainstream.

"Eugenics really didn't get discredited that quickly," Lombardo
says. "The word eugenics didn't become a dirty word in America until
the late 1960s, early 1970s. Nobody was embarrassed to call themselves
a eugenicist in 1955."

Nor did the doctors and scientists who worked so intimately with
Hitler's government necessarily find themselves discredited by the
Holocaust. Here's Eugen Fischer, a leader of the German eugenics
movement, in an article published in Nazi Germany in 1943: "It is a
rare and special good fortune for a theoretical science to flourish at
a time when the prevailing ideology welcomes it, and its findings can
immediately serve the policy of the state." And here's Fischer, by now
an eminence of German science, backpedaling furiously in 1955: "It is
certainly not the fault of eugenics, if godless and criminal misuse
occurred in National Socialism without any knowledge of the genetic
facts, and through the destruction of all human dignity."

A curious bit of German amnesia? Consider this. In 1994, "The Bell
Curve" brought eugenic thinking back full-bore for American readers,
arguing that genetics could be used to explain differences in
intelligence and societal success between racial groups. According to
Lombardo, much of the research upon which that book was based was
supported by the Pioneer Fund, an American eugenics organization first
headed by Harry Laughlin, one of the most strident advocates of
restrictive immigration and sterilization in the 1930s. The Pioneer
Fund, which has argued that it should not be subject to guilt by
association, survived the great discrediting of most of what it once
stood for.

One of the curious and disturbing effects of a visit to "Deadly
Medicine" is the persistent and reflexive attempt the visitor makes to
find a way out of its various ethical mazes. Just because the Nazis
used public health and legal means to abolish civil rights for whole
classes of citizens doesn't mean that public health should be thrown
out the window. The words "guilt by association" will murmur in the
back of the mind.

And so too the sense that there must be distinctions to be made
here. What of euthanasia? Using it against unwilling children with
birth defects is sickening, but what of an elderly cancer victim who
desperately wants to end his or her life because of suffering? And
what of the "promise" of genetic science? If medicine can detect
genetic defects and doctors can abort fetuses before they are born, is
that simply a few steps removed on the ethical ladder from doctors who
euthanize babies with birth defects that will certainly lead to quick

"I personally fall on the side of really protecting the individual,"
Bachrach says.

But that answer isn't entirely satisfying to Leon Kass, chairman of
the President's Council on Bioethics, who has walked through the
exhibition and wants to take the entire council to see it.

"The reliance on individual free choice is no guarantee that we won't
have a comparable eugenic prejudice and discriminatory spirit," says
Kass, pointing to the "free choice" individuals may make to
genetically engineer their children, or themselves, which can "lead to
comparable prejudices against the infirm, the feeble and the

American society, like any other society, also faces dangers that may
necessitate limiting civil rights when public health is involved. A
bioterrorist attack could require significant curtailing of individual
liberty. And the financial stresses on our health care system have
already led to discussion about how to ration care when demand exceeds
supply. Or consider the case of an Oregon death row inmate with
failing kidneys who needed a $100,000 transplant operation to
survive. When his story hit the news last spring, there was outrage
and a lot of muttering about worthy and unworthy people that sounded
decidedly eugenic in its underlying logic.

"There is no magic answer," says Elias A. Zerhouni, director of the
National Institutes of Health. "In many of these issues you have a
balancing for good and for evil, risk and benefit. The problem is how
do you get to balancing in that process? It has to be done through a
transparent process that involves multiple components of society, not
just the experts, not just one community but the checks and balances
that come from wide participation and open debate."

To the extent that American science pursues an openness and
transparency that was manifestly absent from Nazi science, it may
insulate itself from ethical dangers. But "Deadly Medicine" diagnoses
certain patterns of thought that persist in science and social

The social cost of illness, welfare and medical care, and the burden
of taxation are constant themes of eugenics. "An hereditarily ill
person costs 50,000 reichsmarks on average up to the age of sixty,"
reads one passage in a Nazi-era biology textbook. "Every 15 seconds
$100 of your money goes for the care of persons with bad heredity,"
reads a wall display mounted by the American Eugenics Society in the

"That is one of the primary points of contact with the Holocaust,"
Lombardo says. "By passing laws that prohibit these people -- poor
people, criminals, the defective -- we'll be able to lower
taxes. There isn't any subtlety to it."

People were also assigned varying worth. Underlying the eugenics
movement was the fear that the "worst" of society was reproducing
faster than the "best" of society, so the movement festishizes healthy
definitions of family, motherhood and children. It seeks, in
particular, to regulate marriage, trying to limit acceptable
marriages. Just like our own tax code, it used tax benefits and
inheritance law reforms to encourage the good of family life.

Consider a little chapter from the early days of the AIDS epidemic. In
March 1986, when it was becoming clear that AIDS could spread outside
of the gay community and affect the entire country, William F. Buckley
Jr. proposed tattooing people with the HIV virus (on "the upper
forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to
prevent the victimization of other homosexuals"). It wasn't made in
jest, though Buckley later said it was just so much thinking aloud.

But he returned to the idea in May 1986, suggesting that tattoos were
a more efficient and effective measure than the difficult public
health process of tracing sexual contacts. A year later he returned to
the idea, this time with economic arguments, estimating the societal
cost of rampant AIDS would be $10 trillion, which "would mean economic
chaos." He did acknowledge that his line of thinking "reminded
everyone of Auschwitz."

Here in a nutshell is the progress of a certain kind of public health
thinking: Fear leads to a modest, utilitarian proposal, which, despite
its effect on civil liberties, is justified in terms of cost and
efficiency. But Buckley's proposal went nowhere. Thinking about people
with this degree of cold abstraction unsettles us; it reminds us "of

The Holocaust Memorial Museum exists to remind us all of
Auschwitz. This particular exhibition does even more. It reminds us
that when faced with fears and anxieties similar to those that led to
Auschwitz, we have precedents -- scientific, historical, legal and
social -- that can sober us quickly and turn us toward an ethical
confusion and uncertainty that is, in the end, healthier than the
certainty with which Nazi science proceeded down its grisly road.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every
day except Christmas and Yom Kippur. Admittance is free and no passes
are required for the "Deadly Medicine" exhibition. The museum is at
100 Raoul Wallenberg Place SW, near the Smithsonian Metro stop. The
exhibition runs through Oct. 16, 2005.


See also:

     US non-implementation of laws and treaties prohibiting torture

     Mind Justice


The Cold War Experiments
Radiation tests were only one small part of a vast research
program that used thousands of Americans as guinea pigs.
U.S News and World Report, January 24, 1994.
By Stephen Budiansky, Erica E. Goode and Ted Gest


Despite the administration's reluctance, Congress may be moving
to seek justice for all the government's cold war victims. ``It's
not just radiation we're talking about,'' says Democratic Sen.
John Glenn of Ohio, a former Marine and astronaut who is holding
hearings on the subject this week. ``Any place government
experimenting caused a problem we should make every effort to
notify the people and follow up. We ought to set up some sort of
review and compensation for those who were really hurt.''

Many of the stories of people whose lives were destroyed by
mind-altering drugs, electroshock ``treatments'' and other military
and CIA experiments involving toxic chemicals or behavior
modification have been known for almost 20 years. But U.S. News has
discovered that only a handful were ever compensated -- or even
told what was done to them. ``There has essentially been no
legitimate followup, despite the CIA's promise to track down the
victims and see what happened to them,'' says Alan Scheflin, a
professor at Santa Clara University Law School and an authority on
cold war mind control research. ``It's just one of the many broken
promises.'' A CIA spokesman last week said the agency is searching
its files for radiation tests but has no plans to revisit other
human experimentation.

MKULTRA. Most victims have never been informed by the government of
the nature of the experiments they were subjected to or, in some
cases, even fact that they were subjects. In a 1977 hearing, then
CIA director Stansfield Turner said he found the experiments
``abhorrent'' and promised that the CIA would find and notify the
people used in the tests. Turner last week insisted that ``they
found everyone they possibly could find.'' But internal memos and
depositions taken from CIA officials in a lawsuit against the agency
in the 1980s reveal that of the hundreds of experimental subjects
used in the CIA's mind-control program, code-named MKULTRA, only 14
were ever notified and only one was compensated -- for $15,000.

The 14 had all been given LSD surreptitiously by CIA agents in San
Francisco in an attempt to test the drug in an ``operationally
realistic'' setting. One of the victims, U.S. News discovered, was a
San Francisco nightclub singer, Ruth Kelley, now deceased. In the
early 1960s, according to a deposition from a CIA official who was
assigned in the 1980s to track down MKULTRA victims, LSD was slipped
into Kelley's drink just before her act at a club called The Black
Sheep. The agents who had drugged her ``felt the LSD definitely took
some effect during her act,'' testified Frank Laubinger, the
official in charge of the notification program. One agent went to
the bar the next day and reported that she was fine, though another
recalled that she had to be hospitalized.

Most of the MKULTRA documents were destroyed in 1973 on orders of
then CIA Director Richard Helms, and the records that remain do not
contain the names of human subjects used in most of the tests. But
they do clearly suggest that hundreds of people were subjected to
experiments funded by the CIA and carried out at universities, prisons,
mental hospitals, and drug rehabilitation centers. Even so, according
to Laubinger's 1983 deposition, ``it was decided that there were no
subjects that required notification other than those in the [San
Francisco] project,'' and the CIA made no effort to search university
records or conduct personal interviews to find other victims. Admiral
Turner, in his 1983 deposition, conceded that ``a disappointingly
small number'' were notified but defended the agency's continuing
refusal to declassify the names of the researchers and universities
involved. ``I don't think that would have been necessarily the best
way,'' Turner said. ``Not in the litigious society we live in.'' In
1985, the agency successfully appealed to the Supreme court to block
release of that information.


Mind Control: TT&P ==>
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