Aleteia logoAleteia logoAleteia
Saturday 23 September |
Saint of the Day: St. Pio of Pietrelcina
Aleteia logo
separateurCreated with Sketch.

Lives Not Worth Living: The Nazi Eugenic Dream In Our Own Time


AP File

Forum Libertas - published on 09/12/14

History shows us what happens when some lives are deemed more valuable than others.

What do the Aktion T4 sterilization and euthanasia program and new genetic techniques of prenatal diagnosis or “designer babies” have in common?

Today’s news reminds us of our society’s obsession with “normality,” or more accurately, with “perfection.” We hear of advances in widespread prenatal diagnostics, for the purpose of avoiding at all costs the birth of a child with any kind of disability; and genetic selection or “designer babies,” a trend that could end up creating two classes of citizens—those who can afford that kind of selection, and those who can’t.

While taking into account the differences between epochs and the techniques used, both advances are worryingly similar to the Nazi sterilization and euthanasia program Aktion T4, whose main objective was to improve the race.

Is it reasonable to think that these new advances in the field of genetics have similar objectives to those the Nazis sought? Are we facing the possibility of the Nazi dream coming true in our own time?

Aktion T4: "Life not worth living”

Not much has been said about the Nazi eugenics program Aktion T4, maybe because it was a bone-chilling system of selection to determine who had the right to live and who didn’t, among the most vulnerable citizens.

Where did the name of these plans come from? From the general headquarters of the organization that carried them out, situated in Berlin, on Tiergartenstrasse 4 (4 Zoo Street).

Doctors were the ones primarily responsible for applying the plan in order to eliminate people labeled as incurably ill, children with hereditary defects, criminals, the mentally ill, the physically disabled, pedophiles, homosexuals, and adults or elderly people considered “unproductive.”

Aktion T4 was implemented through two channels: euthanasia, practiced on people who fit into those categories, and sterilization en masse, so that there would be no new children with what the doctors considered disabilities that would make people unhappy. And we are speaking here of German patients.

Doctors considered that each of those persons was a “life not worth living” (Lebensunwertes Leben), and presented them as such. It is calculated that between 200,000 and 275,000 people were systematically murdered out of “compassion,” while massive sterilization programs reached more than 400,000 people—always, in every case, against the patient’s will and without consent.

The roots: International eugenics

But, when we speak of Aktion T4, we are not speaking exclusively about the period in which the Nazis launched their “final solution” during the war. We are dealing with a project whose roots predate that time.

It comes from the doctrine of international eugenics promoted by organizations in favor of sterilization en masse, applied to people determined to be suffering from hereditary illnesses. Such programs were established in countries such as the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, France, Finland, Denmark, Estonia, Iceland, and Switzerland.

In fact, impeccable democracies committed eugenic barbarities in the name of science during the first half of the 20th century. As early as 1931, Pope Pius XI condemned the sterilizations and eugenic laws of countries such as Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.

Forward to our own time

At this point, we must ask ourselves, “What are the connections between this plan of extermination and present-day advances in genetics?”

Here, we are referring specifically to prenatal diagnosis, a technology used more and more often to avoid the birth of children with genetic disorders. When the least sign of a problem appears, the pregnancy often ends in abortion.

Not a few people have asked whether these techniques aren’t being used to “hunt” and destroy people with disabilities, because making prenatal exams habitual affects values related to respect for human life, and respect for the life of people with disabilities.

Widespread prenatal diagnostics is set to eliminate entire groups of people, such as those affected by Down Syndrome, those who show symptoms of mental illness linked to genetic factors such as bipolar disorder, and the deaf.

Similarly, the news that, a few years ago, a girl was born in London without a gene linked to cancer from her mother (thanks to having been genetically selected to reduce the risk of suffering from a tumor in the future) presents us not only with ethical questions, but also with the problem of social inequality.

Besides the fact that embryos are destroyed in the process, we have to take into account the fact that only those who have sufficient economic means to pay for it will have access to choosing “designer babies.” In other words, while basic health services or the pension system are being progressively dismantled, there is movement towards genetic selection for those who can afford it.

This will lead to the creation of two classes of citizens: genetically selected and privileged children, and the children of a large segment of the population that does not have the means to take advantage of this process of selection.

How this is different from Aktion T4

Unlike the case today, the Nazis did not use genetics, but rather had recourse to euthanasia and sterilization pure and simple. The doctors concurred with them and together they put pressure on society until they achieved the desired effect.

The main argument is that the weak were a burden on their families, on society and on themselves; that they were unhappy, and their lives were not worth living. The basis of their reasoning was called Volksgemeinschaft, the benefit of the community in general.

Nowadays, it is the techniques used that have fundamentally changed. Far from having a blood-thirsty appearance, they are based on prenatal diagnosis, on "designer babies," and on the idea of euthanasia as a way of dying with dignity.

All that has really changed are the technical side of things and the fact that it is not imposed against the will of the person; it is entirely voluntary. In theory, it is not practiced without the patient’s consent.

And so, sterilization is no longer used as a solution. Instead, a doctor is obligated to participate in early diagnostic procedures, and eugenic abortion is practiced when the person who undergoes the tests considers that there to be the slightest defect.

Now, as then, there is great social pressure to consider these practices not only as normal, but as recommendable.

In the case of euthanasia, the social pressure is reflected in the fact that in Western societies, there is more and more promotion of an idea that, faced with a life not worth living, the best solution is “death with dignity” without offering alternatives to the patient.

It is worth remembering that, without looking too far, we can find the example of an Italian government minister who, in March of 2006, compared the Dutch euthanasia law to Nazism. Carlo Giovanardi, Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, was referring to the Nazi child euthanasia program Aktion T4.

“Nazi legislation and Hitler’s ideas are re-emerging in Europe via Dutch euthanasia laws and the debate on how to kill ill children,” Giovanardi said.

The difference today: Whereas a primary argument for the Aktion T4 program was the national sentiment of patriotism, “it’s good for the country,” nowadays the argument is “helping those in need,” making the ill feel like they are a burden and that it is better to put an end to the situation.

Support Aleteia!

Enjoying your time on Aleteia?

Articles like these are sponsored free for every Catholic through the support of generous readers just like you.

Thanks to their partnership in our mission, we reach more than 20 million unique users per month!

Help us continue to bring the Gospel to people everywhere through uplifting and transformative Catholic news, stories, spirituality, and more.

Support Aleteia with a gift today!

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...

Entrust your prayer intentions to our network of monasteries

Top 10
See More
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.