Socialist Worker

Doctors: when torture is the treatment

by John Parrington
Issue No. 2169

Shocking evidence has emerged that CIA medical personnel were centrally involved in torture at US detention sites such as Guantanamo.

It is alleged that doctors not only monitored techniques but also collected readings which were used to make the torture more effective.

Such activities could constitute human experimentation without consent – something prohibited by the Nuremberg code of medical ethics formulated in response to the experiments carried out in Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War.

At a time when the BBC seems intent on courting the fascist BNP, it is worth recounting the details of those experiments. For however shocking the recent revelations, they fall short of the Nazi doctors’ monstrous activities.

Revelations about medical personnel being involved in torture shock us because many see doctors as one of the most trusted groups in society. A cornerstone of the Hippocratic Oath is the instruction, “Above all, do no harm.”

Yet under the Nazis, medical personnel committed some of the worst acts in human history. The Holocaust may be said to have begun in the hospitals of the Third Reich. The first victims were the disabled. The “law for the prevention of genetically impaired progeny” was implemented just months after Adolf Hitler came to power.

Shockingly, it was doctors who carried out the programme. Even children were not spared. A decree instructed all newborns with disabilities to be killed by injection.


Yet there was resistance, both from individual doctors but above all from the families of disabled babies who were being murdered. Their anger forced the end of the programme. But the horror resurfaced in the “experiments” of the concentration camps.

Prisoners were exposed to extremes of temperature, and to toxins and pathogens, supposedly to develop medical treatments.

Experiments testing racist theories of heredity involved such acts as sewing individuals together and carrying out dissections on living people.

Victims died so slowly and agonisingly that the gas chambers may have been a preferable option.

The Nazi doctors are often viewed as deranged madmen on the fringes of their profession. Yet around half of Germany’s 15,000 doctors were members of the Nazi party. Even Dr Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death” of Auschwitz, had a respectable scientific career. Shockingly, the medical establishment protected many of those who took part in the atrocities.

Some scientists today argue that the Nazis’ findings could be important for treating conditions such as hypothermia, which might at least mean the victims did not die in vain. Others believe the studies are fundamentally flawed because the experimenters’ primary motivation was not science but sadism.

I am swayed by the argument that using the findings is metaphorically equivalent to taking a shower with the soap supposedly made from human remains by the Nazis. In other words data can never be “neutral”.

However shocking the recent revelations about CIA doctors are, there is still a gulf between their activities and the full horror of what took place in the Holocaust.

But both instances are characterised by contempt for the value of other human beings – the complete antithesis of what being a doctor is supposed to be about.

Because of this, the campaign to expose the full facts about what went on in places like Guantanamo, and for doctors that were involved to be struck off, deserves support.

And to prevent the horrors of Nazi death camps ever happening again, everyone needs to be aware of what today’s fascists stand for, and to join in the cry, “Never again!”

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Tue 15 Sep 2009, 19:34 BST
Issue No. 2169
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