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Euthanasia, Abortion, & the Death Penalty by Medical Student Jessica Tran

The content of the Healing by Killing: Medicine During the Third Reich elective is very stimulating for the first- and second-year students at Baylor College of Medicine. As part of the requirements for the course, they must write about a topic of their choosing that is stimulated by the history of medicine during the Third Reich and of American eugenics. Jessica Tran was troubled by the justifications offered by Nazi physicians for the euthanasia programs and chose to write about abortion and the death penalty in the United States. Noting how difficult it is to judge one’s own culture and practices, she asks herself, “In 60 years, will my grandchildren look back on my generation with shock because of the current accepted ideas of abortion and the death penalty?”


Healing by Killing: Medicine in the Third Reich

By Jessica Tran

While I have greatly enjoyed every topic that we have discussed in this class, there was one topic that particularly intrigued me – Euthanasia. As I learned about the events that progressed during the Third Reich period and the number of lives that were taken, I began to think about abortion, the death penalty, and other laws that are currently in place in America. I wondered if we are still living in an age in which the same types of concepts and ideas have become socially acceptable for us just as they did for the individuals in support of “mercy killings” during the Third Reich period.

The first euthanasia in Germany was in 1938 through a petition from Mr. Knauer who had a son that was blind, mentally retarded, and missing one leg and one arm. Hitler granted a “mercy killing” to Mr. Knauer allowing his son to be euthanized. Something I found interesting was that the T4 program was not eligible to Jewish individuals, as this program was considered to be “humane”. Instead, Jews were killed by inhumane methods such as gas chambers and starvation. I found it astonishing how easy the process was – simply filling out a questionnaire (T4 form) and three referees would review the questionnaire for approval.

As I learned about the T4 program in Germany, I began to see links between what was considered medicine in the Third Reich period and our current ideas and acceptance of abortion and the death penalty. Currently, there’s a wide acceptance of both abortion and the death penalty in America. These ideas are still so widely accepted that 31 states still perform the death penalty and 18 states allow abortion.

There are many reasons why individuals support abortion, whether it be to eliminate suffering for the child, mom, or an inability to support the child. I began to ask my friends what their views were on abortion, and I found that many of them do not actively support abortion, but would consider it if they were to become pregnant right now or have a child with a disorder. For most of my friends, their justification for abortion was to eliminate the suffering of the child. I found this to be extremely similar to the thought process that the Germans used to justify mercy killings during the Third Reich period. Mercy killings were supposed to relieve the suffering of those with mental issues. Not only would it “relieve suffering” for the individual but for the rest of the population as these genes would no longer be passed on to the next generation.

In addition, the death penalty is still widely accepted. I have heard many people say that they support the death penalty because “criminals would do no good for the rest of the population anyway”. This sounded a lot like the justification for mercy killings as those individuals with bad genes would contaminate the rest of the population. So ultimately, mercy killings would be doing something good for the country, as would the death penalty.

While I am quick to judge mercy killings, I try to take a step back and realize that I did not live during the Third Reich, I do not know what values and ideas they prioritized, I do not know what the culture was like. However, I do know what the American culture is like now and have a better idea of the values and ideas that are prioritized. I can follow the justification of those that support abortion or the death penalty, and I wonder if those that did not oppose or stand against mercy killings were perhaps just like me. I now ask myself, “in 60 years, will my grandchildren look back on my generation with shock because of the current accepted ideas of abortion and the death penalty?” I find it easy to look back in time and judge the culture and practices of those before us, but I find it hard to step out of the current time and objectively judge our own culture and practices.

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