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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 43.3 (2000) 373-381

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Medicine and Conscience: The Debate on Medical Ethics and Research in Germany 50 Years After Nuremberg

Michael Wunder *

Symposium: Medical Research Ethics at the Millennium: What Have We Learned?

"The question is whether we will ever be able to learn from history," Alexander Mitscherlich said in 1947. He was a member of the German Medical Commission, who by order of the German General Medical Council witnessed the Nuremberg Trial. "I believe," Mitscherlich continued, "that we won't master it by just keeping our distance morally. This is doubtless easy to achieve. However, it is useless for us as soon as we think of the dark future of this century, in which situations might occur leading to a similar coldness and ignorance towards the right to live of people more defenseless and disregarded" [1]. 1

Over the ensuing decades, neither physicians nor the public faced the tiring process of reviewing and questioning history. Even the reports of the German Medical Commission met with a growing disinterest and disapproval from the physicians in post-war Germany. 2 Almost 50 percent of the German physicians were members of the NSDAP (Nazi Party), and they resumed their work after 1945 after only a brief interruption.

Thus it is understandable that it was not the physicians' organizations nor the medical historical departments of the universities that turned towards history at the beginning of the1980s. Rather, it was their children [End Page 373] and grandchildren, who were working in the hospitals, the psychiatric institutions, and homes for persons with disabilities. They began to ask what happened 40 or 50 years ago where they were working. They were not involved personally, nor did they blame their fathers and mothers. This is the generation to which I also belong. 3

After Auschwitz and Hadamar, particularly in Germany, discussion about medical ethics and about the future of medicine are nowadays impossible without reference to history. 4 This consideration was the basis of the program entitled "Medicine and Conscience" in the German Section of International Congress of Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, held in Nuremberg in October 1996. 5 As a result of this congress, on the 50th anniversary of the pronouncement of judgment in the Nuremberg Trial, 20 August 1997, the Nuremberg Code 1997 was presented. Based on the historical experiences and the fundamental ideas of the 1947 Code, the 1997 Code is designed to answer current medical questions about the application of biosciences to human beings. It discusses 10 topics, including medical experiments, reproductive medicine, genetic diagnostics and therapy, transplantation, euthanasia, and distribution of resources. (Due to the time limit and the theme of this symposium, I will focus only on the topic of medical research.) The Nuremberg Code 1997 follows the widespread practice of considering informed consent to be a prerequisite in all fields of public health care service.

The critical-historical link to the Nuremberg Code 1947 that we attempted to make with Code 1997 had to confront two fundamental issues. First, we had to determine whether the Code's significance was only historical or universally valid. To put it differently: was the 1947 Code only to be understood from the historical context? Did it only aim at the judgment of the practices of the Nazi physicians? Or did it imply a universal validity for medical research and medicine in a civilized world?

Historical evidence, as well as a look at the text of the Code, clearly speaks for a universal validity. Telford Taylor, the chief prosecutor of Nuremberg, stated in his introduction that the trial was no mere murder trial, since the defendants were physicians who had sworn the Hippocratic oath and thus had become murderers in the execution of their profession. Logically, the judges created with the Nuremberg Code a basis for the judgment of crimes which became possible within the bounds of medicine. 6 [End Page 374] The judges described the statements of the Code as basic principles that "must be followed...


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