Robert Knight

On any given day, scientists jolt us with new findings – and possibilities.

The white coats in China are busily creating chimeras, the offspring of humans mated with animals (via Petri dish) in order to develop vaccines. With cloning and genetic engineering upon us, the question of whether something should be done is fast being eclipsed by what can be done. But we must keep asking the first question as if our lives depend on it.

In 1943, in The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis warned that not all scientific advances are benign because human beings are not benign:

“Man's conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man's side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.”

On January 14, the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va. hosted a seminar, “Use and Misuse of Neurology and Psychiatry: Lessons Learned from the Holocaust.” In a wide-ranging discussion, several medical and ethical experts connected the dots between advances in biology, genetics, psychiatry and medicine and the temptation to abuse science – always with stated good intentions.

Georgetown University Professor Emeritus Edmund Pellegrino, M.D., who chaired the President’s Council on Bioethics, noted that the Hippocratic Oath, which once governed medicine, “is now disassembled, its precepts challenged.”

Addressing the question of how the Holocaust could have happened in an advanced nation like Germany, he observed that the medical profession itself rather easily accepted the precepts of eugenics. Another panelist, Dr. John Hall of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, noted that eugenics had been hatched in England, developed in America, and then jumped back over the pond for devastating implementation in Germany.

German doctors and nurses bought the idea that the “interests of the general public and of the state” took preference “over the interests” of the patient, Dr. Pellegrino noted, adding, “No doctor felt guilty of violating medical ethics” because the profession had radically changed to conform to National Socialism’s emphasis on the state over the individual.

Before the outbreak of World War II, said Dr. Hall, America was only 10 years behind Germany and was well along in forced sterilization. After all, it was Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in the Buck v. Bell case in 1927 who coldly and famously observed:

Robert Knight

Robert Knight is an author, senior fellow for the American Civil Rights Union and a frequent contributor to Townhall.