The culture of death began as an academic exercise

Felipe E. Vizcarrondo | Aug 7 2018

In 1803 Thomas Robert Malthus, an English clergyman who was concerned about the origins of poverty, published an Essay on the Principle of Population. This was a moment when the world’s population was increasing at a faster rate than it had in the past and some people were concerned about overpopulation.

Malthus had a novel idea: that the growth of the population would eventually outstrip the growth of resources needed to support the increasing number of people, especially food resources. He was convinced that population was growing exponentially and doubling every 25 years, while food resources could only increase arithmetically in the same time.

Malthus deplored the large families of the poor and held that the tendency of the working classes to reproduce was largely responsible for their poverty. The large numbers of dependent poor would eventually put a strain on the state and result in bankruptcy. He advised a decrease in population growth through abstinence and delayed marriage. He also advocated the use of artificial methods of contraception as he believed abstinence would not always be observed.

About 50 years later, in 1859, Charles Darwin published his masterpiece, The Origin of Species.Darwin is said to have been influenced by Malthus’ writing. Darwin’s theory of evolution reversed the Judeo-Christian doctrine of the fall of man from perfection as a consequence of man’s transgression, to a quest for perfection through natural selection. Natural selection would result in the survival of the strong and fit and the elimination of the weak and vulnerable, who would die out naturally. Their passing was essential for progress. Death became an essential element for making humanity better by improving the lineage.

The eugenics movement, an offspring of Darwinism, developed in Europe by the late 1800s. In Great Britain, Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton, introduced the concept of eugenics as a science. Eugenicists argued that many of the maladies of man were due to inferior inherited traits. They encouraged the fit middle and upper classes to have large families; the unfit, poor, especially minorities and immigrants, were to breed less.

By the late 19th century, supported by a utilitarian ideology and the doctrine of natural selection, the concept of a “right to death” surfaced in Europe. In Germany, in 1920, Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche published Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life (Die Freigabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens). Binding was a prominent jurist and Hoche a professor of psychiatry – members of the German intellectual elite. True to their utilitarian ethics, purportedly to benefit society, the authors advised killing those whose lives were devoid of value. This was justified as “compassion” and “release from suffering.” The slow, natural elimination of the unfit by natural selection had evolved into the notion of actively killing the unfit.

This ideology was adopted by German doctors. The victims would be those near death, those in a comatose state and the mentally impaired. Advocates of euthanasia, few at first, gradually increased. Many were professors at medical schools.

Systematic killing began in the 1930s. It started with infants and children with congenital defects and mental retardation and was followed by disabled and mentally ill adults and the terminally ill. The killing criteria expanded to include adults and children with “antisocial behavior” and those with minor handicaps. Children and adults in psychiatric hospitals were killed by lethal injection. When this method proved costly and awkward, gas chambers were built in some hospitals and patients were transferred for extermination. The impetus for the program was medical economics. (J.C. Willke, Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia). The Nazi government supported the program and decriminalized the killing. With the assistance of the state, the killing became impersonal and automatic.

It is important to note that this program was not established by the Nazi government; it was the initiative of members of the German medical community. Nazi ideology accepted eugenics and later on many German physicians accepted Nazi racial doctrines. Medical researchers conducted lethal experiments on inmates in concentration camps.

Binding and Hoche were respected scholars. They were convinced that their arguments for killing the sick and disabled were based on sound economics and were supported by the law. In the preface to the English translation of their book, Anthony Horvath observes that statements made by intellectuals in a scholarly dialogue were adopted by men of action who went on to slaughter the sick and disabled and eventually “inferior races”. The killing by physicians of those whose lives were considered unworthy occurred barely a decade after the publication of Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life.

The eugenics movement in the United States

In the United States, the eugenics movement was also embraced by academics. Funding for eugenics research was provided by the Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Ford Foundations. Faculty from Stanford, Yale, Harvard and Princeton Universities were active promoters.

Compulsory sterilization of “defectives” was carried out. Forced sterilization laws were enacted in 27 states by 1909. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes endorsed the practice of sterilization of “defectives” in a 1927 United States Supreme Court decision, Buck v. Bell. This decision encouraged supporters of coercive sterilization. In fact, American eugenic sterilization programs and genetic laws inspired the Nazi extermination plan (see Edwin Black, The Horrifying American Roots of Nazi Eugenics). Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was a leader in the US eugenics movement.

The death, or at least the sterilization, of an unfit, inferior person was considered a benefit to society. This was purportedly based on science and economics and ultimately the common good and justified ethically as a compassionate release from suffering.

The new eugenics

Over the past 20 years, scientists and philosophers have been proposing a more liberal kind of eugenics. Julian Savulescu, a prominent Australian ethicist, director of the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford University, and John Harris, a British bioethicist, director of the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation at the University of Manchester, are leading figures in the new eugenics.

The supporters of the new eugenics affirm that technology rules and human beings must obediently follow. A basic tenet is human enhancement. Humanity must adapt to the new technologies. Those who do not will not survive or at least will not thrive. The new eugenics envisages that enhancement will be done genetically.

Harris and Savulescu argue that human enhancement is not only the result of a human being’s desire to improve himself but also that it is a moral obligation. If one is truly concerned about the well-being of future generations, parents must be obliged to produce the very best children possible. This is based on what Savulescu calls “procreative beneficence”.

The new eugenics claims that it will create better opportunities for children and that itis based on good science and individual consent. The old eugenics was unscientific, concerned with the improvement of the race, and coercive.

But is the new eugenics really free of coercion? Those who choose not to enhance might be considered unsatisfactory parents, who are not acting in the best interests of their children. Unenhanced children could place a larger financial burden on society. The social pressure on these parents could eventually lead them to consent to their child’s enhancement.

The old eugenics tried to improve the species by encouraging the reproduction of persons with desirable genetic traits and discouraging the reproduction of undesirables. The new eugenics views genetic selection as an improvement on Darwin’s natural selection. But don’t they have fundamentally the same aims: the development of a superior individual and the consequent elimination of those considered inferior?

The slippery slope

The concept of eliminating the unfit persists. In the Netherlands, voluntary euthanasia and physician assisted suicide have been legal since 2002. However, since 1984 the courts had failed to regulate these practices. This unofficial approval led to widespread use by the medical community and eventual acceptance by the public. Frequently it is a Dutch physician who decides who lives and who dies.

Surveys have showed that euthanasia of newborns and infants was a common practice in the Netherlands. In 2002, the Groningen Protocol for newborn euthanasia was developed to regulate the practice of actively ending the life of some newborns and to prevent uncontrolled and unjustifiable killing. It specified that the newborns to be killed were those with congenital defects who were facing “hopeless and unbearable suffering.” Belgium has followed the Netherland’s lead.

In 2012, two bioethicists, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, published an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics, “After birth abortion: Why should the baby live?” The authors admit that the fetus and the newborn child are human beings, albeit non-persons or what they consider “potential” persons. They are non- persons because they are “unable to make aims [set goals] and appreciate their own life.” “Neither can be considered a person in a morally relevant sense, as a subject with a moral right to life.”

The authors conclude with this chilling logic: “If criteria such as the costs (social, psychological, economic) for the potential parents are good enough reasons for having an abortion even when the fetus is healthy, if the moral status of the newborn is the same as that of the infant [fetus] and if neither has any moral value by virtue of being a potential person, then the same reasons which justify abortion should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn.” Note their words, “even when the fetus is healthy”. It is no longer just the unfit who are eligible for euthanasia.

A heated debate ensued in the media. The authors responded with an open letter in the Journal of Medical Ethics. They expressed their surprise at the uproar their article had sparked outside of their philosophical circle. They explained that they had been writing for like-minded ethicists and that the article was meant to be an academic exercise and an exercise in logic. “We are not policy makers, we are philosophers and we deal with concepts, not with legal policy,” they wrote.

Their rationale was reminiscent of the situation in the 1920s. After the publication of Binding and Hoche’s Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life, academics and other intellectuals debated their proposals. Shortly thereafter, they were implemented by the Nazis.

The free exchange of ideas ought to be encouraged in a democratic society. But responsible citizens must be aware of the consequences their words will have on culture and society.

Felipe E Vizcarrondo MD, MA is the president of the Miami Guild of the Catholic Medical Association. 


Binding, K., Hoche, A., Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life, Suzeteo Enterprises, 1920, translated by Modak, C., 2012-2015, commissioned by the Policy Intersections Research Center, www.lifeunworthy of

Black, E., The Horrifying American Roots of Nazi Eugenics, History News Network, The George Washington University, Washington D.C., 2003.

Buck v. Bell,

Darwin, C., The Origin of Species, 1859, Barnes and Noble Classics, New York, 2004.

Giubilini, A., Minerva, F., After-birth abortion: why should the baby live? Journal of Medical Ethics, (2012). doi:10.1136/medethics-2011-100411

Malthus, R. T., “An Essay on the Principle of Population As It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Goodwin, M. Condorcet and Other Writers”,(1st. ed.) London, Johnson, J., in St Paul’s Churchyard, 1798.

Savulescu, J., (2001). “Procreative Beneficence: Why We Should Select the Best Children”. Bioethics15 (5–6): 413–26. doi:10.1111/1467-8519.00251PMID 12058767.

Savulescu, J., Genetically enhance humanity or face extinction – PART 1 on Vimeo. (9 November 2009). Retrieved on 2016-05-16.

Willke, J. C., Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, Hayes Publishing Co., Cincinnati, OH, 1998.

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