If life is 'unworthy of being lived'

2012-05-04 L’Osservatore Romano

The book by Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche, Die Freigabe der Venrichtung lebensunwerten Lebens (allowing the destruction of life unworthy of living) which came out in Germany in 1920 has at last been translated into Italian (in English it is: Permitting the Destruction of Unworthy Life: Its Extent and Form, translated by W.E. Wright, in Issues in Law and Medicine 1992, 8:231-265).

I say “at last”, because this is a text that marks a watershed. It has inspired many important reflections that are only partially explained in the introduction on 19th-century history – very concentrated at the legal level – by the two editors, Ernesto De Cristofaro and Carlo Saletti.

It reveals, in fact, that as well as the good fortune enjoyed in Germany in the first half of the 20th century – at the time of the rise of Nazism the definition of euthanasia in the well known Brockhaus Encyclopedia was inspired by their work and quoted them – reflection on eugenics, taken to its extremes, was widespread and was shared even before the Nazis came to power thanks to learned academics which the Nazis were not. Binding, a jurist who died in 1920 and Hoche, a psychiatrist and a pupil of Ernst Haeckel, the scholar who brought Darwinian evolutionism to Germany – even resigned from the university when the Nazis came to power. Therefore, although the Nazis were later to make great use of this book, spreading the basic opinions found in it, it treated ideas that had germinated in a previous culture: eugenic Darwinism, very widespread in Europe in the first half of the 19th century.

The book may be interpreted in two ways: as an irremediably outmoded text linked to the Nazi ideology, if the accent is put on the theme – developed especially by Binding – of the power of the State over human lives. The idea of the German people, in fact – conceived as an ethnologically homogeneous unit constituted by strong individuals in good health – was raised to a powerful body to which the interest of every individual life must be subordinate. Yet, it is a very topical text; in the essays of the two authors the excessive power of the State over the individual, present without any doubt, constitutes solely one aspect – now obsolete – in the reasoning. In the reasons used to justify – indeed, to express the hope for – the elimination of people seriously ill or affected by psychological ailments we rediscover reasoning and words that are still in use today among the supporters of euthanasia or of the selection of foetuses.

Binding and Hoche, in fact, maintain that life cannot be considered life in the full sense of those who, because of diseases, are exposed to a painful and hopeless agony, or the life of incurable idiots whose existence drags  with no purpose or usefulness, imposing on the community a heavy and pointless burden. With regard to these people, the two scholars invented a new definition which was to enjoy great success even after the defeat of Nazism: “lives unworthy of being lived”. A definition which paved the way to the elimination of the sick and the unfit, permitting these homicides to be justified with a morally appreciable motivation: they in fact spoke of “charitable death” (Gnadentod). These are the same words that recur today recur in the writings of many contemporary bioethicists, and of many politicians who support legislative proposals of a euthanasic type. As the editors write in the introduction, “the notion of life as a good that deserves protection is henceforth cast off from the anchor of any metaphysical postulation, any doctrine of natural law, and is led towards a semantics of concreteness and immanence: life has value as long as it procures pleasure and is free from pain”. We therefore see that this book, precisely because of its grimly up to date characters, must strongly embarrass those who champion euthanasia in the belief that it has nothing to do with Nazism.

Hoche also proves to be a representative of the scientistic attitude, still alive today, which holds that science is never wrong and is therefore as deserving of faith as a dogma. Indeed,  in proposing the elimination of the mentally ill, he holds that the medical science of the time is perfectly able to establish, without any margin of error, whether or not a psychologically sick person is incurable.

Contempt for imperfect human life, over estimation of the abilities of science are two attitudes that are still firmly present in our time, to show that eugenics is still alive and has not been wiped out together with  the Nazi past. And this is also because people only partially identified with the latter. As the book of Binding and Hoche proves.

Lucetta Scaraffia