||Susan M. Recinella, Clinical Psychologist for mentally ill adults, and
Catholic Lay Minister to Families of the Executed|
When Healers Turn into Killers
– Part I
By: Dale Recinella
The U.S. Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of lethal injection.
On its surface, the case appears to be merely legal: whether lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment. Yet, just below the surface, something much more sinister is in the balance. The “easy fix” being proffered to the Court by some states and some lower courts is medical killing. In other words, make executions constitutional by making doctors the killers.
While it would be totally inappropriate to compare U.S. capital punishment to the horror of the Holocaust, we can learn a great deal from the historical record of compromises that paved the way for German doctors to be turned from healers into killers. That record is reconstructed and summarized in Robert J. Lifton’s book The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (Basic Books, 1986). We need not follow the path to the ultimate genocide of the Holocaust in order to identify common threads between current efforts to employ our doctors as killers and the techniques used in the Third Reich.
Original efforts to utilize German special troops, Einsatzkommandos, to carry out the killings of “life unworthy of life” were determined to be impractical. Many troops “had committed suicide. Some had even gone mad.” Hitler and Himmler directed the search for a “more humane” method of killing people. The solution was that “a doctor had to do the killing.” Dr. Viktor Brack, the infamous head of Hitler’s Department for Euthanasia, minted the policy into a slogan of professional pride and responsibility: “The syringe belongs in the hands of a physician.”
There was a problem, however, because doctors considered it unethical to be involved in killing people. The threshold for breaking down that resistance was the use of doctors to kill severely disabled (read unwanted) children. In our time, we have crossed that threshold. Doctors in the U.S. are actively involved in killing millions of human children every year through abortion.
The successful transition to medical killing of adults involved at least three additional developments. First, Nazi doctors experimented with ways of making it seem that killing was not really killing. One successful means was the depletion of the subject through lack of nourishment and water to the point of death. We witnessed a modern adaptation of this approach in the gruesome killing of Terri Schiavo.
Secondly, a complex bureaucratic structure overlaid the killing act. That complex system determined that the subject was unworthy of life. In fact, once that decision was made by others, the subject was really “already dead.” This “served to diffuse individual responsibility [as] each participant could feel like no more than a small cog in a vast officially sanctioned, medical machine. The [killing doctor] did not have the authority to question the definitive judgment of the experts.” In our modern day, the complex morass of the criminal justice system, which has, does and will continue to sentence innocent people to death, would serve the purpose of easing the conscience of doctors who kill.
Finally, euphemisms were used to redefine killing as healing. Once the system had declared an individual unworthy of life, the doctor was characterized as bringing “healing” to the individual and the society by killing that person. This was so internalized by many doctors that they wore their white medical coats as they walked through the Nazi camps selecting those for death and making fatal injections into their hearts to kill them. In our modern day, this battle of language takes place when those who insist on turning doctors into executioners ply platitudes of the death penalty myth about “closure” and “healing.”
The Nazis referred to medical killing as “special treatment.” It was “applied first to allegedly dangerous criminals, then to [those] medically determined ‘unworthy of life,’ and finally, to still-medicalized ‘euthanasia’ in the camps of all groups considered to be undesirable.”
Why would anyone think that this is the right road for America’s next steps as a society? Our Church and our Bishops do not think so. We must end the use of the American death penalty.
First published: The Florida Catholic, December 14, 2007
© 2007 Dale S. Recinella & The Florida Catholic.
Used with permission. All rights reserved.
No further reproduction or republication without prior written permission.
I Was In Prison
News & Updates
This ezine is targeted for people involved in prison ministry or in stopping the death penalty, we think you will find helpful information for people who are undecided about capital punishment, for those who have never experienced the inside of a jail or prison, and for those who feel called to participate through prayer and adoration.
Your name and information will never be used or sha#3333FF with anyone. We promise!
Dale S. Recinella
, Catholic Lay Chaplain, Florida Death Row and Solitary Confinement
Susan M. Recinella
, Clinical Psychologist for mentally ill adults, and
Catholic Lay Minister to Families of the Executed