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Killing Babies, Compassionately

The Netherlands follows in Germany's footsteps.

11:00 PM, Mar 26, 2006 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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AT LAST A HIGH GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL in Europe got up the nerve to chastise the Dutch government for preparing to legalize infant euthanasia. Italy's Parliamentary Affairs minister, Carlo Giovanardi, said during a radio debate: "Nazi legislation and Hitler's ideas are reemerging in Europe via Dutch euthanasia laws and the debate on how to kill ill children."

Unsurprisingly, the Dutch, ever prickly about international criticism of their peculiar institution, were outraged. Giovanardi's critique cut so deeply that even Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende felt the need to respond, sniffing, "This [Giovanardi's assertion] is scandalous and unacceptable. This is not the way to get along in Europe."

As is often the case in the New Europe, what is said matters more than what is done. Thus, the prime minister of the Netherlands thinks that killing babies because they are born with terminal or seriously disabling conditions is not a scandal, but daring to point out accurately that German doctors did the same during World War II, is.

That being noted, one wishes Giovanardi had thought twice before raising the Nazi specter. Partly, this is because nothing we are talking about today matches the scope or magnitude of Nazi crimes. As a result, accusing people of Nazi-like behavior allows those amply deserving of moral condemnation to deflect reproaches. Thus, Giovanardi says that killing disabled babies is what the Nazis did, and the Dutch merely retort (correctly) that they are not Nazis.

Still, the "Nazi" analogy is worth exploring, precisely because it is unequivocally true that German doctors did kill thousands of disabled babies, for which a few such physicians were hanged at Nuremberg. Dutch apologists know this, of course. But they claim that the Netherlands' infant euthanasia program is substantially different: Dutch doctors are motivated by compassion whereas the Germans' were motivated by the bigotry of racial hygiene. Of course it is the act of killing disabled and dying babies that is wrong, not the motivation. But even leaving that aside, the Dutch defense is not as persuasive as Prime Minister Balkenende would like to believe.

German Euthanasia 1938-1945

THE SEEDS OF GERMAN EUTHANASIA were planted in 1920 in the book Permission to Destroy Life Unworthy of Life (Die Freigabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten Leben). Its authors were two of the most respected academics in their respective fields: Karl Binding was a renowned law professor, and Alfred Hoche a physician and humanitarian.

The authors accepted wholeheartedly that people with terminal illnesses, the mentally ill or retarded, and deformed people could be euthanized as "life unworthy of life." More than that, the authors professionalized and medicalized the concept and, according to Robert Jay Lifton in The Nazi Doctors, promoted euthanasia in these circumstances as "purely a healing treatment" and a "healing work"--justified as a splendid way to relieve suffering while saving money spent on caring for the disabled.

Over the years Binding and Hoche's attitudes percolated throughout German society and became accepted widely. These attitudes were stoked enthusiastically by the Nazis so that by 1938 the German government received an outpouring of requests from the relatives of severely disabled infants and young children seeking permission to end their lives.

The key test came in late 1938 when the father of "Baby Knauer," an infant born blind and missing his leg and part of his arm, wrote Hitler requesting permission to have his child "put to sleep." As described by Lifton and other historians, Hitler was quite interested in the case and sent one of his personal physicians, Karl Rudolph Brandt, to investigate. Brandt's instructions from his Führer were to verify the facts of the baby's condition and, if found to be true, to assure the child's doctors and his parents that if he was killed, no one would face punishment. The doctors in the case who met with Brandt agreed that there was "no justification for keeping the child alive." Baby Knauer soon became one of the first victims of the Holocaust.

Hitler later signed a secret decree permitting the euthanasia of disabled infants. Sympathetic physicians and nurses from around the country--many not even Nazi party members--cooperated in the horror that followed. Formal "protective guidelines" were created, including the creation of a panel of "expert referees," which judged which infants were eligible for the program.