Bioethics

Life Unworthy of Life

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Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/30/2013

Things like great steps of moral depravity are not really taken in great steps; they’re taken in little pieces.

My remarks today are precipitated to some degree by two things that happened to me in the last 24 hours. I had a very interesting and significant conversation with two of my neighbors, Tony and Ollie, in Carson. We talk frequently because we’re neighbors and Tony is a fishing buddy, and ethical issues frequently come up.

I also I saw the movie “Judgment at Nuremberg,” a very important film. I’ve been doing some reading in a book called The Nazi Doctors by Robert Jay Lifton so I thought I’d see this film because the book frequently refers to the trials at Nuremberg.

So I saw the film and it’s not only a good film in its own right and stimulating and invigorating to the mind, but it also deals with some of the issues that we’re talking about now. It deals with the issue of justice and the law and euthanasia. Among other things it’s a commentary on normative relativism, the idea that every culture should make up its own idea about what’s right and wrong and that one culture does not have the right or liberty to judge another culture. It’s a very popular viewpoint in our own culture right now. And it’s interesting that this was one defense the Nazis used at Nuremberg, that they should not be judged by another culture.

In any event let me tell you about both my conversation with Tony and Ollie first and some reflections on “Judgment at Nuremberg” and how that tied into the conversation.

Part of what I’ve done here in the last two and a half years, and what we’ve done together, quite frankly, is not to just discuss ethical issues per se, but look at ways of thinking and looking at the world that have ethical ramifications, and in so doing become equipped to think ethically and also to have the language and eyes to see what’s happening beneath the surface, the trends. I talked a few weeks ago about the trend that I call “The Death of Humanness,” the death of the idea that human beings are valuable in themselves, and the ramifications that this idea—pervading our society in a very quiet fashion—is having on public policy and ethical decisions that we make in our culture—truly issues of life and death.

Now I’ve recently been reading the book The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, by Robert J. Lifton, published by Basic Books. It’s one that I footnoted in the talk, “The Death of Humanness.” This book it talks about the Nazi’s program of euthanasia and how it started with sterilization and progressed to euthanasia. Lifton even seems to suggest that the word “euthanasia” might even have been coined by the Nazis. If not coined by them, they were the first ones to really put it into popular use. And of course, the word comes from the Greek “eu” which means good and “thanatos” which means death—i.e. “good death.”

In any event, Tony and Ollie and I were talking about this last night and I was talking about my concern in our culture. I’ve been reading through the book and I’ve seen the pattern of euthanasia in Nazi Germany, how it escalated into what came to be known as the Final Solution—Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka, Majdanek, the Nazi concentration camps and the attempted destruction of the Jewish race. But the book is not so much about the ethics of genocide. Instead it seeks to come to grips with why and how the medical profession could have participated in this killing process. So it’s a psychological analysis, to some degree. But as I’m reading through this book I see a very chilling scenario that unfolds, one I also I see unfolding at this time and I’m chilled by it, not only because it was a historical event of the past, but because I see some of the same elements in place right here in our own time.

As we talked I explained the process as Lifton describes it in the book. First all children three years of age and under who were even suspected of idiocy or mongolism or microcephaly or hydrocephaly or malformation of limbs or head or spinal column, paralysis including spastic conditions, all put into a group called “The Children’s Specialty Department” and trucked to killing centers and put to death. Sometimes they were put to death by injection, but usually they were killed by starvation and occasionally by carbon monoxide gas.

But you see, it didn’t stop with euthanizing defective little children. Pretty soon juvenile delinquents began to be euthanized, and then Jewish-Aryan half-breeds began to be euthanized. At the same time there was another project under a camouflage organization called “The Reich Group of Sanitarium and Nursing Homes” with the goal of euthanizing older people. Before long it was not just the young and the old but people in the middle being killed for political reasons and ethnic reasons. But it started with the young and elderly that were considered a drain on the resources of the state.

They did this through camouflage organizations, as I mentioned, groups that had very nice sounding titles, and they did it by manipulating language. This is how they deceived the general population. For example, the children were transported to the thirty or more killing areas in vehicles that had printed on the sides “The Common Welfare Ambulance Service.” It sounded so nice and pleasant, yet “common welfare” meant that these undesirables were being put to death, cleansed from the race. This was a “cleansing” act; they called it “therapy,” in fact, “healing.”

And as we talked about this Tony asked a question, “How could this ever happen in our time?” And he brought up homosexuals because homosexuals were also put to death in the camps along with Gypsies and political dissidents and Jews. How could this kind of thing ever eventuate here?

I think things like great steps of moral depravity are not really taken in great steps; they’re taken in little pieces. It’s like the guy who was asked if he could eat an elephant. “No, I can’t eat an elephant,” he said. But the answer to that question is, “Yes you can, if you eat the elephant one bite at a time.” And this is what happens in any culture that moves toward this type of a thing, the elephant is eaten one bite at a time.

The first bite is taken when someone decides that there is a life that is unworthy of life. This phrase “life unworthy of life” is a Nazi term, by the way. They coined the phrase. Once someone decides there is a life unworthy of life then the question becomes “Which life is it that is unworthy?” With the Nazis there were two different groups in that category: the most troublesome and also those perceived to be the source of social turmoil. Now the most troublesome at that time were the infirm, the children with congenital defects, and the old people that were a drain on society. Those that were the source of social turmoil were the Jews and Gypsies and the homosexuals and the political dissidents.

Which brings me back to Ollie’s question. I think that if this kind of thing was going to be repeated it would follow the same pattern. Euthanasia becomes acceptable when we say that there is a life that is unworthy of life. Then groups that are both the most troublesome and those perceived to be the source of social turmoil are systematically eliminated.

The fact is that the most troublesome groups in our culture right now are already being killed—inconvenient unborn children, burdensome newborns with congenital defects, and old people. We are already sacrificing their lives.

But what of the groups that are the source of social turmoil? In Nazi Germany it was Jews, political dissidents, homosexuals. Are those the kinds of people that might be, in our future, the objects of a more widespread euthanasia program in this country? I don’t think so, partly because each of those are very strongly politically connected, the homosexuals being an obvious example. There is, however, another group of people increasingly being considered in our culture as philosophically troublesome, annoying and increasingly problematic, so much so that there is an aggressive attempt to marginalize them. In other words, this group appears to contribute to social turmoil and could very well be at the bottom end of the euthanasia slope we’re presently sliding down.

I realize that right now some of you are scratching your heads saying, “This wild-eyed reactionary conservative is raising the specter of the Third Reich and comparing us to Nazis and the Third Reich and storm troopers.”

I admit to you that there have been many who have raised that specter inappropriately and have used that imagery from the past illegitimately. What I am trying to do is refer to specifics from history, not just past history but what’s happening right now, to demonstrate for you that this is not a wild-eyed claim. I am convinced that we are on the exact same slippery slope as the Germans were in 1938, 1939, 1940, 1941, those years just prior to the death camps. And I am not suggesting that as we continue this course we will face concentration camps. I don’t know if that’s the case.

But what I’m saying is that there is a slippery slope and we are on it, my friends, because we have made the same decisions they did. We are arguing the same way. We are using the same kinds of language those did who forty years ago euthanized innocent people by arguing that there was a life unworthy of life. And that process ended up in a very few years to the extermination of not just dozens, not just hundreds, not just thousands, not just ten thousands, but millions of people. What makes us so confident that we will escape their fate?

They did it one bite at a time. They started by saying that there is a life unworthy of life. They continued by including more and more people in that group from each end of the age spectrum, from the youngsters to the old people and they moved towards the middle. Then everybody was in danger; nobody was safe from being declared unworthy of life because it was no longer just the physically infirm on either end of the age spectrum, but it became those people who had ideologies that were offensive to the status quo. And that’s what I’d like to talk about right now, those people who have ideologies that are offensive to the status quo, who are increasingly being perceived as a significant source of social turmoil.

We’ve already got the first step, my friends. We are already euthanizing those on each end of the age spectrum and we do it without hardly lifting an eyebrow. We started with the unborn children, we’re continuing now with the elderly and we’re moving closer and closer to the middle.

Now, if we did cross this threshold in which the life unworthy was not merely a life victimized by some physical malady, but somebody victimized, if you will, by a philosophical malady, what group in this country would qualify? What group could possibly qualify? Following the pattern it would have be that group which seemed to be responsible for social turmoil.

Now I am going to make not a prediction, but a speculation. Please understand that the distinction is very important. Having said that, let me ask you a question. What is the ruling ethic of our culture? The ruling ethic of our culture is relativism, often described as pluralism. And it’s not the old pluralism which meant that everybody had a right to their view and we could argue about our views and I could say, “You have a right to your view but I think you’re dead wrong and here are the reasons why.” It is a new pluralism that is influenced by moral relativism. This pluralism says that everybody has a view, but since truth is relative and morals are relative you can never say that your view is any better than anybody else’s. You can never say that any morality is better than another. You could never say that your point of view is more reasonable to be believed because that would be divisive and intolerant.

The most intolerant people, the greatest sinners and those that cause the greatest problems in a deeply relativistic culture are those that do not buy that particular concept of pluralistic relativism, in other words, those people who make moral judgments. If the biggest sin is being intolerant, taking a moral stand, then moralists would be the biggest “sinners” and the most dangerous in a this type of pluralistic society. Moralists would be the most dangerous because they would fracture and injure the social organism with divisive, private, personal moralities that really “belong in the church” or really “belong in the privacy of one’s own home” but are being “forced upon the public.”

Simply put, religious people that hold moral absolutes—principally conservative Jews and conservative Christians in this country—would be the biggest enemies of a pluralistic, morally relativistic culture. They would be the ones increasingly viewed, as they are now, as the source of social turmoil, those people that are trying to force their morality on others, those people that are trying to draw moral lines, those people that are trying to say there is a higher law to which every other law must obey.

If the culture, the popular voice becomes the arbiter of morality, if voting determines what is moral and immoral, then the moral reformer becomes the criminal. The group that says that there is an absolute law that transcends opinion, that transcends the polls, a higher law that transcends the law of men to which man’s laws are subject, this group of people will be the problem. And this group of people will become expendable, I fear. It’s happened before.

I’ll tell you how the slippery slope works. Right now we’re killing people to end their suffering. That’s why the group in favor of initiative 161 is called “Californians Against Suffering.” And who wants people to suffer? I understand that sentiment. That is very appealing, but once you do this you cross a line that says that there is a life not worthy of being lived, in this case a suffering life.

I call this the “quality of life poison pill.” When you swallow this pleasant sounding argument you swallow poison because what next? You have to define what suffering is. What is suffering? It starts with a terminally ill patient dying of cancer. Then it becomes a newborn baby with spinabifida. Who would want that baby to go through such a life of suffering? Then it becomes a Down’s Syndrome child with a low I.Q. If we let that child survive it will suffer all of its life; people will make fun of it. Then it becomes a quadriplegic who is immobilized from a car accident. Then it becomes an insane person suffering because he is talking to someone who doesn’t exist. Then it becomes a Christian talking to a God who doesn’t exist.

“Ah, come on, Koukl, that’s bizarre. What a leap! Talk about stretching, going from euthanizing a terminally ill cancer patient to killing Christians because they’re praying. That’s an awfully big step.”

You’re right, it is a big step, but let me add this. Almost twenty years ago now, 1973, Roe v. Wade legalized abortion for all nine months of pregnancy. Dr. Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop wrote a book called Whatever Happened to the Human Race? Aptly titled. They said if we do this to unborn children infanticide will follow and we’ll be killing old people. And people said they were crazy. What a leap in logic from allowing a woman to make a choice about her pregnancy to killing old people. That’s ridiculous.

But here we are twenty years later sliding down the slippery slope and this November you get to vote on initiative 161. And unless we get out and tell people what this really means and identify the truth for what it is then this will pass in this state. And you know what? People are shrugging their shoulders. Initiative 161 is no big deal. It makes sense.

My friends, there is a slippery slope. In Holland there is an estimated 2300 cases of adult euthanasia annually. And a recent report of the Dutch Pediatric Association has now proposed mercy killing of severely handicapped newborns. You see, friends, what was unthinkable yesterday is thinkable today and ordinary and commonplace tomorrow.

What’s really ironic is that up until just recently Christians in what was then the Soviet Union were routinely jailed in asylums and the Gulag as insane for talking to a God who doesn’t exist! And we looked at that and thought how ludicrous. What a violation of human rights. And the absolute irony is that the Soviet Union now has more functional religious liberty than the United States does.

So while all of this is going on in my head I saw this film “Judgment at Nuremberg.” I was deeply moved by it, as I mentioned. In this movie Justice Hayward, played by Spencer Tracy, is the chief justice of the tribunal. In his opinion against the defendants at that trial he included these words: “Before the people of this world let it be now noted that this is what we stand for: justice, truth and the value of a single human being.” Well, these words sound almost quaint in the present moral environment. It sounds like a superman line or something. “Justice and truth and the value of a single human being!” What a joke! Spencer, come out of the Dark Ages. Join the twentieth Century. Wake up! People don’t think that way anymore.

As the movie ended, Harry Yonick, a former Nazi judge, powerfully portrayed by Burt Lancaster, on trial for the perversion of justice during the Third Reich in his remarks to the bench actually admits his guilt. And he reasoned this way. He said that at the time he was willing to put up with a passing phase of injustice—the taking of innocent life, life that was unworthy of life, just a passing phase—because that would lead to a finer world that would emerge from this temporary injustice of the Third Reich. And as he hung his head in shame before the tribunal he said, “Tragically, the passing phase did not pass, but instead became business as usual.”

At the end of the movie the now convicted Harry Yonick asked to see the Chief Justice. When the Justice met him in his cell Harry Yonick said, “Those people, those millions of people. I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it. You must believe it.” To which Justice Hayward replied, “It came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death that you knew to be innocent.”

My friends, saying that any innocent human life is not worthy of life is the first step. And we took that step nearly two decades ago. We have slid a long way down the slope since then. And the tragic and deeply frightening thing is that no one seems to have noticed. It’s become just business as usual.

At least that’s the way I see it.