The Culture of Death Reclaims Ground in Germany: A Renewed Threat to Human Life

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
March 5, 2020

The culture of death continues to advance across western civilization—most recently in the nation of Germany, where the country’s highest court overturned a legislative ban on euthanasia.

Christopher Schuetze of The New York Times wrote, “Germany’s highest court last week overturned a ban on organized, medically assisted suicide, allowing terminally and gravely ill patients to seek help ending their lives without leaving the country… The ruling came after a long running discussion about the role of doctors and caregivers in end of life decisions, one that has special resonance in a country where Nazi doctors killed hundreds of thousands during World War II.”

“Hundreds of thousands” is a grotesque understatement.

Moreover, this recent development in Germany is but another example of the increasing secularization sweeping across nation after nation, which fundamentally repudiates the Christian worldview and the dignity of human life. Euthanasia comes from a Greek word that means, “good death.” There is a demand in many nations for people suffering from illnesses to have the option to end their life in a dignified, good way—this an ultimate declaration of human autonomy, or at least the pretense of personal autonomy. Many today actually believe that we hold the power to give and end life; we demand death on our own terms for our own purposes. This is a complete denial of the function of God and God alone as the giver and sustainer of life.

Replacing the Christian worldview over humanity and even the issue of death is a naturalistic, materialistic worldview where human dignity is slowly but surely eradicated at the beginning and end of life—inevitably, human dignity will disappear at every point in between.

Interestingly, this decision was mandated by judicial decree—there was no legislative action nor deliberative debate amongst the representatives of the people. Time and again, the courts of numerous nations shove a progressive and deadly agenda upon the people without there being any national discussion or debate over these fundamental and crucial issues. In the United States, we have seen this kind of judicial overreach and activism in cases like Roe v. Wade in 1973 and Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015.

But this recent case in Germany comes with an entirely new set of challenges and moral quandaries, namely, the historical context of physician-assisted suicide in the nation of Germany. Indeed, The New York Times states, “The court’s decision comes more than four years after the German parliament moved away from many of its European neighbors by voting to ban organized assisted suicide.” But with the ruling that came last Wednesday, “Germany will once more allow people to help those too ill to end their lives, even if they do so in an organized fashion, as medical practitioners and end of life volunteer associations aim to do.”

By “organized fashion,” the German court meant that the decision to carry out physician-assisted suicide must come through an intricate process of systems, committees, and organizations—this is especially interesting in the German context.

Hermann Grohe, identified as a former German Health Minister who helped create the original legislative ban on euthanasia, told the media that he believed the decision would pave the way toward, what he called, “the normalization of suicide as a treatment option.” That is exactly what we are seeing in the case of euthanasia. When physicians become involved in bringing about the death of their patients by what is euphemistically called physician-assisted suicide, medical treatment and medical ethics must undergo a complete overhaul and redefinition. The physician, who was once committed to the preservation and extension of life is now on the side of death.

There is a macabre inversion of morality that ends up in the vocabulary of euthanasia. Essentially, we have physician-assisted suicide, which is claimed as the patient’s right and the physician’s duty and responsibility. This inevitably leads to, as Dr. Grohe stated, the normalization of suicide as a viable treatment option.

When suicide becomes an option, it will not just be one option among others. We can easily see the deathly logic inherent in the loss of human dignity as a pillar of society. The most vulnerable and aging will be told, at some point, “You have simply become too expensive. Healthcare resources are wasted on you because you have no hope of recovery. You need to get out of the way in order to free up needed medical funds and resources for others.” It won’t be said exactly in those words—that would be too intellectually honest for this worldview. But make no mistake, that is indeed the internal reasoning of a worldview system that utterly rejects human dignity and the sanctity of life.

The New York Times, however, presses the issue within its German context. The article states, “The subject is especially contentious in Germany because of the Nazi policy of having doctors end the lives of sick and disabled people.”

At this point, we must look back to the horrors of the middle part of the 20th century in the Nazi regime. The Nazi government enacted its infamous T4 program, which was the enforced euthanasia of people defined as undesirables by the Nazi government—a program that involved the active participation of the German medical establishment.

The best report on this program came from Robert J. Lifton in an article he wrote in 1986 for New York Times Magazine. The article was titled, “German Doctors and the Final Solution.” Lifton, a generation ago, demonstrated that there was far more widespread involvement amongst German doctors in the euthanasia program, which killed not only hundreds of thousands, but millions of people during the Holocaust. As Lifton wrote, “Before Auschwitz and the other death camps, the Nazis had established a policy of direct medical killing—killing arranged within medical channels by means of medical decisions and carried out by doctors and their assistants. The Nazis called this program, ‘euthanasia.’”

This is astounding and should give us pause. The Nazis called their program, “euthanasia,” or “good death.” But it was not, in any form, a voluntary program. As Lifton explained to Americans unfamiliar with the term then in 1986, “Euthanasia is derived from the Greek meaning ‘good death.’ The word is generally used for actions taken to facilitate the deaths of those who are already dying and has long been a subject of debate for physicians, moral philosophers, and the general public.”

When Lifton wrote this article, not one major government on earth had any form of legalized physician-assisted suicide. This goes to show how fast a moral revolution can overwhelm a civilization.

Lifton went on to state, “The Nazis, however, use the term ‘euthanasia’ to camouflage mass murder. Just how the Nazis were able to do that has been made clearer by recent historical research and interviews.” Lifton was instrumental in conducting those interviews during the 1970s and ‘80s with the German doctors who participated in the killing project.

Lifton chronicled, “Nazi medicalized killing provided both the method, the gas chamber, and much of the personnel for the death camps themselves. In Auschwitz, for instance, doctors selected prisoners for death, supervised the killings in the gas chambers, and decided when the victims were dead.” The key phrase there is that the doctors selected prisoners for death and supervised the entire process. Lifton summarized, “Doctors, in short, played a crucial role in the Final Solution.” The full significance of medially directed killing for Nazi theory and behavior cannot be comprehended unless we understand how Nazi doctors destroyed the boundary between the healing and killing.”

When people read this article in 1986, it was likely the first time they had ever been confronted with the idea of a doctor involved in the killing machinery of the Third Reich.

Lifton went on to describe how the Nazis propagandized their program of death, calling it a “therapeutic imperative.” Fritz Klein, an Auschwitz SS doctor was asked how he could reconcile the smoking chimneys at the death camp with his purported fealty to the hypocritic oath, which demands the preservation of life. Dr. Klein said, “Of course, I am a doctor, and I want to preserve life, and out of respect for human life, I would remove a gangrenous appendix from a diseased body… The Jew is the gangrenous appendix in the body of mankind.”

That line of reasoning is the horrific and unmistakably deadly logic of a worldview that has entirely rejected the dignity of human life. It is a perversion of medical ethics. A profession that is supposed to be dedicated to the preservation of human life morphed into a practice not only committed to death, but to the ideological definition and defense of death.

Lifton pointed out something extremely important for the Christian conscience. He highlighted that the crucial theoretical work behind the Nazi medicine was actually a document that was entitled “The Permission to Destroy Life Unworthy of Life.” As Lifton pointed out, that document was published in the 1920s, written by two men then recognized to be amongst the most distinguished professors in Germany.

That phrase, “life unworthy of life,” is without a doubt one of the deadliest phrases ever known in the history of humanity—human life unworthy of life.

Once we begin to accept that there is any human life that is unworthy of life, then someone of course is going to have to decide which lives are worthy of life and which are unworthy. At the end of that line of reasoning is a gas chamber and mass murder.

The Nazi doctors went so far as to argue that the elimination of unworthy human life was a form of kindness to those who were killed by removing them from the experience of living an unworthy life. This logic was extended most importantly to the disabled, whether physical or mental. Asylums were turned into killing machines, as well as many children’s homes.

Adolf Hitler himself pushed this program, requiring the registration of children and others with disabilities early in his Nazi regime. Just two months later, he issued a decree ordering the death of such children who were on the lists—he decreed them as human beings unworthy of life.

In April of 1940, the entire movement of T4 as a project directed its attention to the Jews. As Lifton wrote, “The systematic ‘treatment,’ of German Jews under T4 began in April, 1940 with a proclamation from the Reich Interior Ministry that within three weeks, all Jewish patients were to be registered, but registering was just a prelude to eliminating.”

For Christians, this should weigh heavily on us was we consider the recent news developments coming from Germany. But, remember the assurance made in The New York Times article by a doctor in Germany who said, “The discussion will start all over again, but this time, with the guidelines of the constitutional court.” The new program of euthanasia is going to be under the direction of the constitutional court—that is supposed to bring us comfort when everything that happened in the 1930s and 1940s was legally authorized by the government.

In short order, the culture of death respects no constitution. Anyone who places ultimate faith in a constitution to protect and defend human life and human dignity places all too much confidence in an all too insufficient authority. Moreover, any society that embraces physician-assisted suicide is a society that is embracing death at its very core—and don’t ever believe for a moment that the option for euthanasia will remain just an option.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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