William Oddie has a must-read post at the Catholic Herald UK blog responding to a program that ran on the BBC’s this week which featured fantasy author and campaigner for assisted suicide Sir Terry Pratchet, watching the physician-assisted death of Peter Smedley, badly afflicted by Motor Neurone Disease. Hundreds of complaints have been filed since accusing the BBC of running a pro-euthanasia campaign.
Responding specifically to Sir Pratchet’s article in the Guardian, defending the show, Oddie says:
It’s all, of course, a very reasonable-sounding explanation of what he called in a contribution to the Newsnight discussion his “right to death”. When I heard him use that phrase, however, I shuddered, for it has a sinister history: it recalls vividly the entire reasonableness of the successful campaign in Germany during the 1910s through to the 20s and 30s to convince the medical profession that “assisted dying” or “sterbehilfe” for those with an impaired “quality of life” (to use a modern expression which also has sinister historical overtones) as morally acceptable: a book published 13 years before Hitler took power, The Permission to Destroy Life Unworthy of Life, Binding and Hoche’s Die Freigabe der Vernichtung Lebensunwerten Lebens, together with Jost’s Das Recht auf den Tod (The Right to Death) [remember Sir Terry’s “right to die”?] had a huge influence on the German medical profession and without doubt paved the way for the Nazi euthanasia programme.
These authors were far from being Nazis themselves. Professor Binding was an authority on constitutional law; Dr Hoche was a leading psychiatrist. They made it clear that “sterbehilfe” had to be voluntary. But we know what happened then. What happened was that the Nazis didn’t justify “sterbehilfe” for those they decided were unfit to live by declaring its basis in Nazi ideology: what they did instead was to use precisely the language of reason and compassion that underlay the arguments that had so influenced the medical profession that they were in no intellectual condition to resist the Nazi programme on moral grounds.
Nazi propaganda films portrayed euthanasia as essentially compassionate. In I Accuse! (Ich klage an!) (which I have seen: it’s very well made, and would actually be deeply moving if one didn’t know where it had come from) a woman with multiple sclerosis, a musician who is losing the power to play her instrument (the cello: that somehow makes it more poignant) asks her husband to give her a merciful death. He gives her a lethal injection of morphine while peaceful music is played on the piano in a neighbouring room (remember Sir Terry’s plan to put Thomas Tallis on his iPod?). He is tried for murder: at his trial he argues that this was not murder, since his motives were wholly compassionate. He is, of course, acquitted: and the bourgeois moralists are routed.
Fact: Hitler was inspired by a pre-existing eugenics movement propagated mostly by German doctors and other “medical professionals.” The concept of ending life unworthy of life was already a widespread and accepted ideal in Germany once the Nazis came to power. In fact, the first official victim of the Holocaust, “Baby Knauer,” an infant born blind and missing his leg and part of his arm, was actually killed by one of Hitler’s doctors at the request of the child’s own father.
Right to die? Watch out. It’s not a giant leap from “right” to “duty.”