While different priorities attracted those attending Drew University’s April 16 conference on bioethics and the lessons of World War II, there was unanimity on the basic message: Medical atrocities like those committed by Nazi doctors remain a present danger.
As Holocaust historian and museum developer Michael Berenbaum said of his work on the legacy of Nazi “medicine”: “If I had a dream it would be to be irrelevant.”
The all-day event featured speeches, panels, and workshops covering historic issues — from the murder of those deemed “unfit for life” to medical experimentation, from increasingly efficient mass executions to current debates about issues like genetic testing, stem cell research, and torture.
The event was hosted by Drew’s Caspersen School of Graduate Studies’ Department of Medical Humanities and its Center for Holocaust/Genocide Studies.
In addition to its duration and geographic extent, Berenbaum said, what made the Holocaust uniquely terrible was the participation of individuals from professions like law and medicine, who functioned with decency under other circumstances. Quoting psychologist Robert Jay Lifton, he said, “It’s demonic that they weren’t demonic.”
The keynote speaker, bioethicist Arthur Caplan, underlined the fact that those involved in atrocity generally justify their actions. “People don’t do things unless they think they’re right,” he said. They didn’t say, “I did it because I was ordered to.” Most claimed that it was necessary to sacrifice some in order to “benefit the many.”
To elevate awareness of current dangers, Caplan said, “academics have a responsibility to reach out, to talk to the citizenry.”
Official action by those in power can still come cloaked in deceptive language. Allen Keller, an expert on torture and other human rights abuses, warned of the dangers inherent in euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation” and “extraordinary rendition.”
“Never in my wildest dreams” did he expect to find his own country involved in torture on a massive scale, said Keller, an associate professor of Medicine at New York University School of Medicine. President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, he said, both believed such extreme treatment of prisoners was for the good of the United States.
Keller said he is working on legislation that would punish physicians who participate in torture.
“Oaths are good,” he said, “but we need something with teeth.”
The event was held in collaboration with — among other organizations — the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Houston-based Center for Medicine after the Holocaust.
The organizers had expected around 75 attendees; about 150 came. Among them were educators, doctors, and lawyers, some active, some retired, plus others from associated professions.
Pearl Lebovic, rebbetzin of the Chabad Lubavitch synagogue Congregation Ahavath Zion in Maplewood, serves as a chaplain at hospitals in Morristown and Mountainside. “What worries us most,” she said, “is all the talk about assisted suicide.”
For Hedy Wald, clinical associate professor of family medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, it was the need to train medical students in empathetic listening skills. “They say that they have so much ground to cover, there isn’t time, but what could be more important?” she asked.
The main organizer, Stacy Gallin, an adjunct assistant professor in Drew’s Medical Humanities Program, was surprised and encouraged.
“My goal in organizing this conference was not only to educate people regarding the participation of the medical community in the labeling, persecution, and eventual mass murder of millions of people deemed ‘unfit’ during World War II,” she said, “but to emphasize the relevance of this topic for modern medical practice, health-care policy, bioethics, and human rights endeavors.”
The turnout, she said, “helps validate what we are vtrying to do in terms of launching a larger project on medicine, bioethics, and the Holocaust at Drew University.”