German and American Medicine Before DNA and Today

by Robert E. Pollack

I want to talk today about the life and works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Though not a scientist, but rather a martyred German Pastor of the middle of the previous century, he has a lot to teach us about the necessity of taking a stand in public against egregious misinterpretations of the results of science.

Let me begin with this quotation from Albert Einstein, the greatest scientific mind we have known. When these words were recorded in the autumn of 1940 —the season and year of my own birth—he was a German-Swiss émigré to the United States, speaking in English in his exile, to faculty and students at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Some of these students would have known Bonhoeffer as well, having wished him safe journey a year earlier when he boarded one of the last passenger ships to leave the United States before the outbreak of war, to exchange the safety of Union Theological Seminary for a return to his home and work in the Germany of 1939. Einstein said:

. . . a religious person is devout in the sense that he has no doubt of the significance and loftiness of those super-personal objects and goals which neither require nor are capable of rational foundation. They exist with the same matter-of-factness as he himself. In this sense religion is the age-old endeavor of mankind to become clearly and completely conscious of these values and goals and constantly to strengthen and extend their effects.

By the winter of 1940-41, Bonhoeffer had become deeply immersed in a secret plot to kill Hitler. Writing to his friend Bethge about family matters, he let slip a reminder to his friend to read something from the Old Testament, the Torah:

How nice that you were with Johannes yesterday . . . Read Exod.23.7 again.

Exodus 23:7 carries one of the commands that Moses receives at Sinai and passes on to the Children of Israel. It concerns the behavior of judges: "Keep far from a false charge; do not bring death on those who are innocent and in the right, for I will not acquit the wrongdoer."

So, in the first months of my own life, Einstein—having left his native land to save his life—speaks clearly, in safety, of the religious obligation a scientist must have to serve some cause beyond his or her own needs. At the same time Bonhoeffer—having only a year earlier returned to Germany from the same few square blocks of religious freedom that form Union Theological Seminary—turns to a text that his ancestors and Einstein's had shared for millennia, to stiffen his resolve and confirm his full resistance to a terrible regime. That regime had not only sent its greatest mind away to exile in the United States, but had also been using science for many years to justify orders to send hundreds of thousands of other Germans from their hospital beds to their deaths.

How could this have happened? My way of answering in this season will be to address three questions, in this order:

Question 1: How could science and medicine collaborate to bring death on "those who are innocent and in the right?" That is, how did the eugenics movement of a century ago result in such a terrible outcome?

Question 2: How may the scientists among us understand our obligation today and in the future, to keep our work "free from a false charge," even though we may become powerful and wealthy by allowing misuses of the new, DNA-based genetic medicine of today?

Question 3: How may we all meet our obligations today and in the next twenty years, to those who today are least able to care for themselves?

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Source: Cross Currents, Spring 2006, Vol. 56,  No 1.