KILLING IN THE NAME OF HEALING: CONFRONTING MEDICAL HOLOCAUSTS PAST AND PRESENT
William C. Brennan
(Franciscan University Press, 2021, hardcover, 299 pages, $40)
Reviewed by John M. Grondelski
The 75th anniversary of the Nuremberg Doctors Trial (Dec. 7, 1946-August 20, 1947) reminds us that medicalized killing is most frequently associated with the Nazis. But doctor-administered death, argues William Brennan in his new book, has strong affinities with an earlier 20th-century eugenics movement as well as with the subsequent promotion of abortion and euthanasia as social goods. Brennan, professor emeritus at St. Louis University, is also the author of Confronting the Language Empowering the Culture of Death, part of Catholic University’s “Studies in the Thought of John Paul II” series.
In Killing in the Name of Healing, Brennan explores what happens when health care professionals no longer profess an unambiguous commitment to life. The book is divided into three parts. Part I, titled “The Technology of Exterminative Medicine,” draws parallels between Nazi practices and contemporary counterparts, for example, lethal injections to stop heartbeats: carbolic acid, as in the case of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who was killed at Auschwitz, and digoxin, which is administered to third-trimester unborn children in “legal” partial-birth abortions.
Brennan details how medicalized killing—another example being the imposed death by starvation and dehydration of Terry Schiavo—became a “science,” complete with protocols for precise lethal dosing, how to handle those who fail to die on the first attempt, and getting rid of the bodies. There was an early Nazi debate, he notes, between ideologues who wanted mass graves as “proof” of their “noble” work and realists who favored cremation as a way of eliminating the evidence. An analogous disagreement is found in the vehement opposition of abortionists to recent efforts by some states to require burial of abortion victims.
Brennan also analyzes the slippery-slope logic (“they’re going to die anyway”) that encourages exploitation of victims’ bodies for research, whether it be Dachau’s air pressure and cold-water experiments on prisoners or the use of frozen embryos and aborted fetal parts in today’s biomedical industry and university laboratories. Another chapter in this section looks at how medical professionals rationalize their participation in exterminative medicine—through peer support, pride in skill proficiency, belief in beneficent and/or altruistic contributions, or alcohol indulgence.
In Part II, “Rhetoric in the Service of Medical Mayhem,” Brennan builds on another earlier work, Dehumanizing the Vulnerable: When Word Games Take Lives (Life Cycle Books, 2000), pointing out parallels between Nazi eugenics rhetoric and today’s manipulation of language to promote deathdealing policies. Mass killing, he states, requires ideology. He then quotes Solzhenitsyn to make his point: “The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers [Macbeth and Iago] stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology” (p. 110, emphasis in original). The ideology that led to the Nazi killing, Brennan says, was born in the cultural embrace of “life unworthy of life,” a notion rampant in Germany long before Hitler. It assumed dehumanizing labels—“subhuman,” “nonperson,” “lower animal,” “parasite,” “vegetable”—all of which recur in today’s defense of abortion and euthanasia. The killing itself is pronounced to be “benign,” if not outright “humanitarian.”
Part III considers ways of “Challenging Destructive Medical Rhetoric,” including a valuable review of the thoroughgoing post-World War II effort to expose the evil of medicalized killing through the mass media (video and photographs of concentration camps) and the legal system (the Nuremberg Trials). Here Brennan directs a special appeal to physicians to take back their profession, noting how the American Medical Association did so in 1859 and 1871, when it advocated for state laws to protect the unborn.
Brennan’s analogies between Nazi exterminative medicine and contemporary doctor-administered death will make the book controversial, although he repeatedly stipulates that he is not arguing for any one-on-one correspondence. The Holocaust was unique. But medicalized killing itself predates the Holocaust; and it goes on today, albeit in different forms. Critics are free to reject the affinities that Brennan discusses, but they cannot be the sole gatekeepers of historical lessons drawn from past episodes when doctors were sanctioned to kill. We best remember the tragedy and injustice of medicalized killing, whether in Tuskegee or Tübingen, with an openness of mind that probes whether underlying exterminative attitudes are reasserting themselves in our own time.
John Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views herein are exclusively his.