The Holocaust

The Holocaust lies like a specter behind modern bioethics. Contemporary bioethical discourse derives much of its moral legitimacy from the legacy of the Holocaust. The unfathomable cruelty of the Holocaust is paradigmatic of the degree to which the unfettered power of the majority over despised minorities can distort human relationships. The eugenic philosophy that undergirded social engineering and extermination campaigns informs all current debate about genetic engineering and population genetics. The genocidal strategy of the Nazis, coupled with the complicity of large segments of the German public, including medical professionals, showed the depths to which human beings could go in the pursuit of misguided philosophies of science and in-group politics. The atrocities committed in the name of medical research revealed individual subject vulnerability in the hands of investigators so starkly that virtually all modern standards for protecting human research subjects originated in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

The events that occurred in Germany under National Socialism have come to represent evil in pure form, without caveat or ambiguity. The Holocaust thus has come to signify the ultimately evil act; the Nazi enterprise, the ultimately evil political and social movement; and Hitler, the ultimately evil leader. By extension, those who were inactive in the face of evil are invoked as the paradigm of complicity and those who did not speak out are emblems of culpable silence. It thus is not surprising that evoking the Holocaust as a rhetorical strategy has enormous symbolic power.

However, such power cannot be wielded without risk. Drawing on symbols of ultimate evil to buttress arguments about the undesirability of lesser evils may be emotionally satisfying, but it is rarely a persuasive rhetorical strategy. If the analogy is seen as inapt, it tends to weaken rather than strengthen the case being made. Still, the temptation to employ the Holocaust is strong, and it has become a central metaphor for a variety of social movements (Stein), special interests (Novick), and political actors (Lin and Gur-Ze'ev) as well as in popular culture (Hungerford, Mintz, Zelizer).

The use of the Holocaust in bioethics has taken on a particular character. Bioethics is a normative discourse, and the Holocaust is a signifier with great normative power. The Holocaust frequently is invoked in bioethical discourse to draw analogies, suggest threats to vulnerable groups, or warn against perceived slippery slopes. After a brief historical summary, some of those strategies will be examined in this entry to explore their impact on bioethical discourse.

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