Bioethics and the Nuremburg Trials

3 10 2010

The term bioethics is credited to a few various notables; earliest of these is Aldo Leopold, who coined the term in his environmental studies works from the early 1940s (Englehardt, 162).  It wasn’t until Dr. Van Rensselaer Potter II referenced this term in regards to medical studies in the 1970s though that it gained attention (Gilbert).  This was furthered by the work of Sargent Shriver, who in the 1970s, helped to establish an institute at Georgetown University called The Joseph and Rose Kennedy Center for the Study of Human Reproduction and Bioethics, named for his in-laws.  His objective serves as the best definition for bioethics that this writer has yet come across:  to apply moral philosophy to medical dilemmas (Levin, 5).

Al Jonsen contends that bioethics developed following World War II and the Nuremburg Trials; that those in the medical fields began to question if it was beneficial to conduct medical experiments on an individual who is already sentenced in some manner to death; if those experiments could generate better means of curing disease (Jonsen, 11).  Medical professionals now had to ask themselves what was the benefit, what was the harm, who should live, who should die, and who should decide the answers to these questions (Jonsen, 11)?  This was the birth of biomedical ethics, more commonly called bioethics.

The Hippocratic Oath, centuries old, is considered the ethical compass that all medical professionals guide themselves by, indicates that the professional will use regimens which will benefit the patient, not harm them; avoid distributing lethal drugs; not practice methods in which they are not skilled; and all in all, do no harm (NIH).  Yet, through experiments in medicine a greater good has been achieved, sometimes to the detriment or harm of a patient, whilst saving or prolonging the lives of others through the knowledge gained.  To this, there is a contradiction to the Hippocratic Oath, which swears not only no harm, but also the avoidance of practicing methods that are not yet skilled.

Take Dr. Georg August Weltz for example, a skilled physician, later an associate medical professor, who supervised and conducted several medical experiments at Dachau, and though later considered inhumane by most moral standards, he was acquitted and defended his actions, stating “When the Hippocratic oath was first formulated there was no such thing as experimental medicine.  Today…a medicine not based on the success of experimental medicine is inconceivable,” (Freyhofer, 69-124).  In a situation as aforementioned, bioethics finds its home.  Dr. Weltz repeatedly defended his actions, as tests were performed on criminal inmates and only habitual offenders (Freyhofer, 69).  Yet, most of the world would find that these were not criminals, merely individuals whose ethnic ancestry caused them to be violators of an immoral law.  Dr. Weltz’s studies though, advanced the knowledge of the medical world on how to treat hypothermia, at what stage of freezing a human could be successfully revived, and at what point the body ceases to thrive in sub-thermal conditions (Pozos, 442).  Clearly, the benefits of knowing the impacts of hypothermia, how quickly a person must be treated, and what types of treatment are successful have proven significantly useful in the medical world many times over.  The number of lives saved is undocumented, yet we hear tales each winter of persons being rescued following a near fatal drowning in frozen waters or extreme cases of hypothermia.  Ultimately, we must credit the studies practiced on the unfortunate victims of Nazi-era Germany for the life-saving methods utilized today, but morally we might object to the method used to learn these skills.  This is the struggle of bioethics, making a decision that has a medical benefit that may cause one to question the ethics or morals applied to making that decision.  Should we set aside this knowledge as though it doesn’t exist and treat patients with a more limited expertise?

This past week, the United States’ government issued apologies for recently learned information regarding medical experiments performed on prisoners in Guatemala wherein 700 male subjects were unwillingly infected with strains of syphilis and gonorrhea as a means of testing treatment for these diseases.  Some subjects were first given a penicillin based vaccination, while others were merely treated after the infection with antibiotics (Smith-Gary).  And again, while the medical advances are noteworthy, the method of gaining this information calls into question the ethical rationale applied.  Ethically, is it acceptable to infect and treat human test subjects if the result could mean the cure for such deadly infections?  Is it an easier pill to swallow if those test subjects are condemned criminals rather than common citizens?



Works Cited

Engelhardt, Jr., Hugo Tristram. “The Context of Health Care: Persons, Possessions, and States.” The Foundations of Bioethics. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1986. 162. Print.

Fremgen, Ph.D., Bonnie F. Medical Law and Ethics. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008. Print.

Freyhofer, Horst H. The Nuremberg Medical Trial: the Holocaust and the Origin of the Nuremberg Medical Code. New York: P. Lang, 2004. Print.

Gilbert, Steven G. “A Small Dose Of… Bioethics.” A Small Dose Of… 2 Jan. 2005. Web. 04 Oct. 2010. <;.

Jonsen, Albert R. “Medical Ethics Before Bioethics.” The Birth of Bioethics. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.

Levine, Carol. “Analyzing Pandora’s Box: The History of Bioethics.” The Ethics of Bioethics: Mapping the Moral Landscape. By Lisa A. Eckenwiler and Felicia Cohn. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2007. 3-23. Print.

“Greek Medicine | Hippocrates | The Oath.” National Library of Medicine – National Institutes of Health. Trans. Michael North. 24 June 2010. Web. 04 Oct. 2010. <;.

Pozos, Ph.D., Robert S. “Nazi Hypothermia Research: Should the Data Be Used?” Military Medical Ethics. Vol. 2. Borden Institute: Office of The Surgeon General, Department of the Army, United States of America, 1987. 437-61. Print.

Smith-Gary, Laura. “U.S. Apologizes for Deliberately Infecting Guatemalans With Syphilis.” Care2 – Largest Online Community for Healthy and Green Living, Human Rights and Animal Welfare. 4 Oct. 2010. Web. 4 Oct. 2010. <;.




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