By Wesley J. Smith, J.D., Special Consultant to the CBC

It is well known that Nazi “doctors” engaged in horrendous medical experiments with concentration camp inmates. They thought it was fine and right to do so because they believed they were working on so-called untermenchen, that is, humans of lesser value. There is no such thing as an untermenchen, we were told correctly after the Nuremberg Tribunals, as some of these butchers found out the hard way when they met the hangman’s noose.

And yet, concurrently with those monstrous human experiments — and worse, into the 60s, barely 20 years later — American researchers intentionally infected people deadly diseases. From the story:

Shocking as it may seem, U.S. government doctors once thought it was fine to experiment on disabled people and prison inmates. Such experiments included giving hepatitis to mental patients in Connecticut, squirting a pandemic flu virus up the noses of prisoners in Maryland, and injecting cancer cells into chronically ill people at a New York hospital…

An exhaustive review by The Associated Press of medical journal reports and decades-old press clippings found more than 40 such studies. At best, these were a search for lifesaving treatments; at worst, some amounted to curiosity-satisfying experiments that hurt people but provided no useful results. These studies were worse in at least one respect — they violated the concept of “first do no harm,” a fundamental medical principle that stretches back centuries.

People with disabilities and prisoners were powerless and seen as not having equal moral value — or these deeds would not have been done — which was why they were so awfully abused:

Attitudes about medical research were different then. Infectious diseases killed many more people years ago, and doctors worked urgently to invent and test cures. Many prominent researchers felt it was legitimate to experiment on people who did not have full rights in society — people like prisoners, mental patients, poor blacks.

Exactly. A disbelief in human exceptionalism. And that excuse is no excuse! The Nuremberg Code had been issued in 1949 to great acclaim. Any scientists still around who did these things should be held to public account — just like we have Nazis who escaped justice after the war.

Not coincidentally, the late 60s and into the early seventies was also the era in which some American doctors and scientists engaged in live fetal experiments. One of these was recounted by Pamela R. Winnick in her splendid book A Jealous God (p 24.):

In a 1968 study called the “Artificial Placenta,” a twenty-six week old fetus, weighing more than a pound, was obtained from a fourteen-year-old girl, presumably from a therapeutic abortion. Along with fourteen other fetuses, it was immersed in a liquid containing oxygen and kept alive for a full five hours.

She then quotes directly from the study itself

For the whole 5 hours of life, the fetus did not respire. Irregular gasping movements, twice a minute occurred in the middle of the experiment but there was not proper respiration. Once the profusion [pumping in of oxygenated blood] was stopped, however, the gasping respiratory efforts increased to 8 to 10 per minute…After stopping the circuit, the heart slowed, became irregular and eventually stopped…The fetus was quiet, making occasional stretching limb movements very much oke the ones reported in other human work…[T]he fetus died 21 minutes after leaving the circuit.

Winnick then reports that rather than being appalled, the scientists lauded this living fetal experimentation:

The study won the Foundation Prize Award from the American Association of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

These experiments were stopped because an outraged Congress–led by Senator Ted Kennedy–outlawed such a crassly instrumental use of fetal human beings. (If you want to read my review of A Jealous God, hit this link.)

Don’t say it will never happen again. We have seen advocacy in some of the world’s most respected professional journals to use unconscious patients in terrible ways, such as removing the patients’ kidneys and transplanting pig organs to look into the safety of xenotransplantation, as I detailed in the San Francisco Chronicle a few years ago.

I will keep saying it: When we abandon human exceptionalism, we create the environment in which these awful experiments can happen.