My Book Review on “Nurses and Midwives in Nazi Germany: The ‘Euthanasia Programs’”

“Nurses and Midwives in Nazi Germany-The ‘Euthanasia Programs’”
Edited by Susan Benedict and Linda Shields
Routledge Studies in Modern European History. London: Routledge 2014

My book review (abstract) was just published in the Linacre Quarterly journal. Here are some excerpts from my review with all emphasis added only for this blog.

In my nursing education during the 1960s, the Nazi euthanasia program was covered during a class but mainly as a ghastly aberration that was unthinkable today with our now strong ethical principles. As students, we were shocked and horrified by the revelation that nurses were integral to Nazi killing programs. We had little knowledge of the mechanisms that existed to encourage nurses to kill those patients whose lives were deemed “not worth living.”

Unfortunately, it is difficult these days to find information about nurses during the Nazi regime, even on the American Nurses Association website. Thus, the editors of this book do nurses and the public a great service by examining the little-known but crucial role of nurses in the Nazi euthanasia programs. Knowing this history is more important than ever as efforts to legalize assisted suicide and euthanasia continue to grow.

The authors explain the history, education, propaganda, and pressures that led so many nurses to participate in the killing of hundreds of thousands of helpless men, women, and children in the 1930s and 1940s; they also propose a model for teaching nursing ethics using the Nazi euthanasia program to encourage nursing students to examine ethical principles and their own values as a nurse in today’s health-care system.

……

The authors start with the rise of the influential eugenics movement in the early twentieth century in countries like the United States where the American Eugenics Society even held conferences on eugenics, such as the 1937 one which included the topic “The Relation of Eugenics to the Field of Nursing.” Eventually, the US eugenics movement fell out of favor after the Nazi euthanasia programs were discovered in World War II.

Even prior to World War II, German professional nursing publications discussed eugenics as “providing a scientific basis for the positive eugenics promoting reproduction among the healthy (often of northern European descent) middle to upper classes and negative eugenics encouraging limited reproduction and forced sterilization of the ‘unfit’ (who were often poor, uneducated, and more recent immigrants) as reasonable”.  Eugenic language was most prevalent in public health and psychiatric nursing texts and in discussions of poverty, immigrants, cleanliness, and social problems.

The editors also point to the influence on Adolf Hitler of the 1920 book titled Approval of the Extermination of Worthless Human Lives by Germans Karl Binding, a jurist, and Alfred Hoche, a psychiatrist. Binding and Hoche noted that there were no legal arguments preventing legalizing the killing of those whose lives were considered not worth living. (Emphasis added)

There was extensive propaganda aimed at increasing the acceptance of euthanasia by the public and health-care providers. Only a few months after Hitler seized power, the first law, affecting people diagnosed with psychiatric conditions, was passed. It mandated sterilization for people with hereditary disorders including alcoholism and epilepsy. Propaganda emphasized wastefulness of providing health care to the chronically mentally ill and the hereditary nature of undesirable physical, mental, and social traits.

Hitler did not propose the systematic killing of psychiatric patients during peacetime because he anticipated the opposition of the churches and the German people. The beginning of World War II muted moral objections and distracted the populace with concerns of conserving resources for the war effort and was the start of state-sponsored euthanasia. The first documented killing occurred in 1939 when Hitler granted the euthanasia request of a father whose son was born blind, missing a leg and part of an arm and who “seemed to be an idiot” .

In 1939, the German Ministry of Justice proposed two new clauses:

1.“Whoever is suffering from an incurable or terminal illness which is a major burden to himself or others can request mercy killing by a doctor, provided it is his express wish and has the approval of a specially empowered doctor.”

2. “The life of a person who, because of incurable mental illness, requires permanent institutionalization and is not able to sustain an independent existence may be prematurely terminated by medical measures in a painless and covert manner” . (Emphasis added)

The program started targeting those in asylums and the disabled in nursing homes for death by lethal gas, starvation, drugs, and neglect. The Jewish population was especially targeted regardless of health.

………

 

In 1933, Adolf Bartels, the deputy leader of the Reich’s medical profession, provided a blueprint of the future of nursing under the Nazis. He emphasized that German nurses in social and medical service had to meet standards in the new Reich that were very different from before. The new Reich not only wanted to look after the sick and weak but also wanted to secure a healthy development of all Germans “if their inherited biological predisposition allows for it” (p. 38). Above all, the new state wanted to secure and promote a genetically sound, valuable race, and, in contrast to the past, “not to expend an exaggerated effort on the care of genetically or racially inferior people”. (Emphasis added)

As a Nazi politician stated, “a nurse is the one who should carry out the will of the State in the health education of the people”. It was not necessary for the majority of nurses to become ardent supporters of the Nazi regime for them to do the will of the Reich. One source noted that the majority of nurses who participated in a secret euthanasia program known as T4 tried to remain good nurses; an estimated 10 percent or fewer were enthusiastic supporters of Nazi practice. But, as in other areas of public life, the Reich absorbed professional nursing organizations, leaving the nursing profession with no means of expressing opposing or dissenting views as well as no organizational support for refusing to participate. (Emphasis added)

……

 

Using midwives, the Reich took various measures both to prevent those regarded as having a “hereditary disease” or who were “racially inferior” from reproducing while increasing the birth rate of those considered valuable and healthy. Thus, the traditional midwife focus on the mother and child was changed to focus on the nation as a whole.

Midwives could initiate proceedings for forced sterilization, and it was now a duty for midwives to report to public health officers “deformed” births and small children with disabilities before their third birthday. Reports received from doctors and midwives were reviewed by medical examiners, and based solely on the reports, the examiners decided whether the child was to be killed or spared.

Parents with such children were told about institutions for children who needed special care that were being established through the country. They were persuaded to admit these children and were assured that the children would receive the best possible care. Parents could refuse but had to sign forms stating their responsibility to supervise and care for their children. The identified children in these institutions were killed by starvation or lethal injection. Parents were told that their children had died from natural causes.

……..

The world was riveted by the 1945 Hadamar trial, the first mass atrocity trial after the Nazi regime was defeated in World War II. This trial came before the infamous Nuremburg trials that included doctors. Hadamar was covered extensively by American media but ignored by the American Journal of Nursing even though nurses were charged.

The trial involved one of the largest and most important killing centers, Hadamar Psychiatric Hospital, one of the six institutions in Germany designated for killing the mentally ill. In 1943, a ward (called an “educational home”) was set up for mixed-race children with Jewish heritage within Hadamar. Completely healthy children were killed with lethal injections. The actual numbers are not known because employees were required to take an oath of secrecy. It is estimated that more than 13,000 patients were killed in 1941 and 1942, even before the ward was set up.

 

In the first Hadamar trial, Head Nurse Irmgard Huber was tried with six others for killing over 400 men, women, and children. Nurse Huber was charged with “obtaining the lethal drugs, being present when some of the fatal injections were given, and being present when the false death certificates were made out”. Two male nurses were charged with administering the lethal injections. All pleaded not guilty. Their defense was that they were powerless and had inadequate knowledge to judge the morality of their actions. All denied accountability. (Emphasis added)

Trial testimony confirmed that the nurses prepared patients for their deaths, directed the entire nursing staff of the institution, and were present at the daily conferences where the falsified death certificates were completed. Duties to patients were limited to so-called kindnesses that consisted of bringing small gifts to pediatric patients and taking care to prevent patients from knowing that they would soon be killed. Head Nurse Huber insisted that she wished to render a last service to these patients and did not want to do them any harm and that she had a clear conscience.

…….

The second Hadamar trial in 1947 did not receive the same attention as the first. Twenty-five members of the Hadamar staff were charged. At this trial, Head Nurse Huber was charged with killing 15,000 German mental patients. All but one of the defendants were found guilty and served sentences ranging from two and a half to five years. The one nurse found not guilty claimed she had feigned pregnancy in order to achieve release from the killing center. (Emphasis added)

In the end, Head Nurse Huber was released from prison in 1952; the others by 1954.

………

The book presents a model used for two innovative teaching programs about this subject, one in Israel and one in Australia, perhaps the most important contribution of this book. The editors believe that the Nazi era should be taught to students, “highlighting the danger of failing to see each individual as a valuable member of human society. And while the heart of nursing and midwifery continues to be care and caring practices, it is fundamental for students to confront this history to develop insights into the causes and social constructs that enabled nurses and midwives to distort the goal of nursing practice and theory to harm and murder patients.”

The results of these programs and the responses by students appear encouraging. The editors hope that by raising these issues, students will be forced to confront their own values and beliefs, sometimes an intensely uncomfortable experience. They also believe students who are exposed to this “dark element of nursing and midwifery history” will be better prepared to face pressure or to report and oppose violations of the trust that is central to any relationship between nurses and patients

 

CONCLUSION

Decades after the Nazi atrocities, we are seeing a resurgence of the same “life unworthy of life” justification that drove Nazi eugenics. We see how this perspective increasingly approves the deliberate termination of some lives as “merciful” and “humane.” There is an emerging, shocking consensus that we can—or perhaps even should—choose to have our own lives terminated when our lives are considered not worth living either by ourselves or by others if we cannot speak for ourselves.

The authors of this book make it clear: we all need to know and understand the past in order not to repeat it. Hopefully, it is not too late to turn the tide of history back toward respect for all life.

 

 

You Don’t Want to be a Burden, Do You?

An April 13, 2018 USA Today op-ed titled “Make an End-of-life plan or Lose your Money and Choices in your Dying Days” by Hattie Bryant begins with the statement “End-of-life care can bankrupt your family and rob you of choices. End the denial about dying. Make a plan in case you end up seriously ill and frail.” (Emphasis added)

Ms. Bryant is very upfront about using the economic argument about aging and the enormous toll it can take financially and personally on the family as well as medical costs. She states that “in 2011, Medicare spent $554 billion and 28%, or about $170 billion, on patients’ last six months of life. After $170 billion is spent, those patients are still dead.”

Her solution is a new kind of economic advance directive she developed (and is selling as a book titled “I’ll Have It My Way: Taking Control of End-of-Life Decisions“ ) “that deals with how you want your funds spent when you are seriously ill or frail.” (All emphasis added)

SHOULD WE HAVE A “DUTY TO DIE”?

Back in 1984, Governor Richard Lamm of Colorado found himself in the middle of a firestorm of outrage when, as the New York Times reported, “Governor Lamm Asserts Elderly, If Very Ill, Have a ‘Duty to Die”.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Elderly people who are terminally ill have a ”duty to die and get out of the way” instead of trying to prolong their lives by artificial means, Gov. Richard D. Lamm of Colorado said Tuesday.

People who die without having life artificially extended are similar to ”leaves falling off a tree and forming humus for the other plants to grow up,” the Governor told a meeting of the Colorado Health Lawyers Association at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

”You’ve got a duty to die and get out of the way,” said the 48-year-old Governor. ”Let the other society, our kids, build a reasonable life.”

This philosophy was echoed in 2014 by one of the architects of Obamacare, Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel, when he wrote “Why I Hope to Die at 75-An argument that society and families—and you—will be better off if nature takes its course swiftly and promptly” for The Atlantic Magazine.

At age 57 at the time, Dr. Emanuel states that while death is a loss, there “is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss” that “renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.” (Emphasis added)

He states that he will stop trying to prolong his own life by age 75.

CONCLUSION

Helping to care for many terminally ill or seriously disabled relatives, friends and patients of all ages for many decades both professionally and personally, I have a different perspective.

We are all born dependent on others for care and many of us need at least some help from others at the end of our lives. This can be hard at times-as even parents of newborns will attest-but the rewards are great both for the helper and the person being helped.

I remember when my mother with Alzheimer’s and terminal thyroid cancer was dying in 1988. It wasn’t the most convenient time for us, to say the least. I was a suddenly single parent with three young children and financially struggling.  My mother no longer recognized me but, as I told a friend, the most important issue was that I recognized her.  As a family, we did what was medically reasonable for my mother to help her without either prolonging or hastening her dying.

Taking care of my mother was a wonderful, if occasionally difficult, experience and I am grateful that we were able to keep her at home almost to the very end.

The final result was that my mother was kept  safe, comfortable and loved. Her funeral was truly a celebration of her life and my children learned an important lesson about the circle of life and taking care of each other. We still talk fondly about their time helping with grandma, even after 30 years.

When I made out my own advance directive, I made sure that it was as protective as possible against a hastened death. I don’t fear death. I do fear the bioethicists  and others who use economics and fear to push especially older people into prematurely signing away their rights to even basic care and what this does to our society.

Nurses, “Living Wills” and Healthcare Economic$

A few weeks ago, a 95 year old friend with chronic congestive heart failure was recovering from a hip fracture and blood clot when she developed a very serious pneumonia. I was with her in the ER when the doctor asked her son and I about how aggressive to be if her heart or breathing worsened. I said “Ask her!” and the doc was stunned when she vehemently said “Yes!”, even after he explained the potential problems with cardiopulmonary resuscitation and ventilators. My friend has a durable power of attorney naming her daughter as her health decision maker but the doctor wrongly assumed my friend was unconscious and that we were her decision makers.

My friend astonished the doctors by recovering with antibiotics and temporary BiPap (a face mask machine to support her breathing). After a stint in rehab, my friend was able to go home last week.

It was because of mistaken but potentially fatal situations like this that I wrote my 2015 blog “Living with ‘Living Wills” about the history, uses, problems and pitfalls with living wills and other end-of-life documents known as advance directives.

NURSES PUSHING “LIVING WILLS”

Just last week, however,  I read two articles by nurses uncritically promoting “living wills”, one in a major nursing journal and one in the LA Times.

The nursing journal article titled “Nurses in the Know: The History and Future of Advance Directives” by Blanca Miller, PhD, RN extolls the benefits of signing an advance directive like a “living will”, durable power of attorney, etc. Ms. Miller insists that nurses have an important role to play in promoting and implementing these documents.

She starts with a history of “living wills” beginning with Louis Kutner’s 1969 law journal article but ignores its’ title “Due Process of Euthanasia: The Living Will, A Proposal” (emphasis added) and the decades long fight to legalize euthanasia in the US by the Euthanasia Society of America  (later renamed the Society for the Right to Die and now known as Compassion and Choices)

When lawyer Kutner proposed his novel document for a person to sign that “if the individual’s bodily state becomes completely vegetative and it is certain that he cannot regain his mental and physical capacities, medical treatment shall cease,” it was a breakthrough moment, according to Nurse Miller.

The next year, The Euthanasia Society of America distributed 60,000 living wills. In 1976, California passed the nation’s first “living will” law called the “Natural Death Act” and other states quickly followed.

Nurse Miller then writes approvingly of controversial withdrawal of feeding cases such as Nancy Cruzan’s  and Terri Schiavo’s as progress, along with the 1990  Patient Self-Determination Act .

Nurse Miller apparently sees no downside to such documents despite medical articles like When Advance Directives Can be Dangerous” and cases like Helga Wanglie’s where doctors went to court to force her family to withdraw life support but a judge upheld Ms. Wanglie’s husband’s right to make medical decisions for her.

Instead Nurse Miller warns that:

“Projections indicate that by 2030, over half of the 8.5 million Americans over 85 years of age will suffer from dementia and have no spouse or children to care for them. Healthcare professionals will be increasingly confronted with concerns regarding individual autonomy and end of life decisions.”

And bemoans that:

“Although federal law requires healthcare providers and institutions to give patients advance directive forms, most patients do not complete them. Completion rates currently range from 18% to 31%.”

Most disturbingly, Nurse Miller approvingly writes that:

“Advance directive laws are still evolving. As seen in (Brittany) Maynard’s case,  Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act (1997) allows patients not only to reject possible life-saving treatments but also to actively accelerate death.”(Emphasis added)

Also pushing “living wills” in a LA Times article “You Should Make Decisions about End-of-life Care Now”, ICU nurse Kristen McConnell states that “the American healthcare system never taught the public that preventing a natural death often results in a wholly unnatural life” and describes “an elderly patient with a history of strokes and dementia who was brought to the emergency department after another large stroke.” She describes caring for him:

“When I am face to face with a patient like this — someone who will never again be able to communicate, and who has been placed on the treadmill of continuous medical care — I feel the same type of shame as when I walk by a cold, crippled homeless person on the sidewalk. The wrongness is just as obvious.”

When I worked as an ICU nurse, I saw similar attitudes among some of my colleagues who said such patients “need to die” even when these patients wanted medical treatment. These nurses criticized these patients’ care as a waste of time and money. Personally, I found it difficult to work with these nurses and, as a potential future patient, I would not want them caring for me.

Unfortunately, such attitudes can become infectious.

HEALTHCARE ECONOMIC$

In 2012, I wrote an article “Right to Health Care, Duty to Die?” about the disturbing changes I was seeing in healthcare.

Here is an excerpt:

Recently, I had a startling glimpse into the possible future nightmare facing both healthcare and nursing when I read “How Can We Afford to Die?” in the May-June 2012 issue of Nursing Economic$. (No, the “$” is not a typo but evidently a mindset.)

This influential nursing journal, written by nurse educators and others in health care policy positions, devoted the whole issue to death, dying, and cost containment. The agenda quickly became clear as the costs at the end of life were endlessly cited, but concerns about potential abuses were dismissed and conscience rights were not even mentioned in the six articles I read…

In the editorial for this issue of Nursing Economic$ ,  Donna M. Nickitas, PhD, RN   unapologetically even advocates for “punitive reimbursement policies for excessive end-of-life treatments that only prolong life.”

If enacted, such penalties will certainly intimidate many doctors regarding how aggressively to treat you if you are terminally ill, elderly, critically or chronically ill, or even potentially disabled.

This issue of Nursing Economic$ was given in conjunction with the Hospice-Palliative Care Action Plan presented at the Fifth Nursing Economic$ Summit “How Can We Afford to Die?” on June 6, 2012 in Washington, DC, in which an 8-point action plan was also presented. One of the points discussed the importance of getting everyone over the age of 18 to sign “living wills” and other advance directives. But this point had one interesting caveat: “if many patients have advance directives that make positive, cost-conscious systemic change impossible, most of the other efforts discussed as part of our  action plan will go for naught”. (emphasis added).

In other words, not choosing a potentially premature death can upset the economic imperative to reduce health care costs.

In the years since “How Can We Afford to Die?”, I constantly saw new cost-containment measures and government mandates introduced at my institution . I am not surprised that there are now high levels of burnout and depression reported among doctors and nurses, including “moral distress”.

CONCLUSION

Before my mother developed Alzheimer’s and cancer, she would tell me that she never wanted to be a “burden” on her children. She never was and I would never tell my children the same thing.

We need to expunge the idea of people as “burdens” and embrace the words of the late  Dame Cicely Saunders, nurse, physician and writer, and founder of the true hospice movement:

“You matter because you are you, and you matter to the end of your life. We will do all we can not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die.”