Tuskegee Conference: How Do We Break Through Dehumanization?

The 80th anniversary of the lethal Tuskegee syphillis experiments upon black men was commemorated with a conference held April 19 at the  Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. These are the remarks on how to break through dehumanization of victims and perpetrators as given by De Fischler Herman, Rabbinic Pastor and Chaplain with Capital Caring Hospice in Washington, DC, at a panel titled “Advances and Horizons.”

More after the jump.

Twenty six years ago, at National Geographic Magazine, I got to work on a story about  Holocaust survivors, excerpting a new book titled “Remnants: The Last Jews of Poland”.  The photographer, Tomasz Tomaszewski, and his wife, writer Malgorzata Niezabitowska, Roman Catholic Poles, had spent five years of their own time and money traveling around the country seeking out Jews who had remained in Poland after World War II to interview, photograph, and eventually share their stories with the world.  Why did they do this?  

Malgorzata, having been raised by her grandmother, grew up hearing stories of many Jews–the grain merchant, the tailor, the lawyer, even the doctor who had saved her father as a boy from whooping cough–but looking around, she saw none of them. In 1968, when Malgorzata was a teen, the Polish government’s savage anti-Semitic campaign forced out most of the few remaining Jews.  She resolved to find out what happened, why did Poles fear and distrust Jews and blame Jews for all their problems?  What remained of the once exuberant Jewish people in Poland?  In meeting and marrying someone who shared her passion, she never gave up her quest. In their interviews, they unearthed some of the stories, hidden for decades, which easily could have been lost as the Holocaust survivors died.  What the author was able to do not only was to heal from her own loss, but to illuminate a dark time from the past encouraging others to do the same.  She wrote:

“We lost something of our arrogance and pride in exchange for a greater tolerance of others and their individuality…We learned to speak forthrightly about matters that we previously had preferred to push aside. We also managed more than once to bring joy to people.”

When Tomaszewski came to the Geographic for the editorial review, I got to sit in.  After all, I had a personal stake in the story since my ancestors were from that part of the world.  As I listened to him share the stories in his halting English while projecting the images on the Editor’s screen, I imagined in their faces my own long lost relatives for whom I had never grieved. When the presentation ended, I made my way back to my office, closed the door, and wept. These two Polish Gentiles had given me, along with countless others, the invitation to grieve and heal from an old, festering wound. It was empowering.

But we know that history repeats itself. When we don’t question, study, understand, and resolve past mistakes, or when we succumb to victimization and live out our lives in debilitating fear, anger, and hatred, we are destined to inflict the trauma on succeeding generations. We only need look no further than the genocide of Native Americans or the enslavement of Africans at the hands of the white Europeans who colonized these shores.

Will Medical Research Be Used Again for the Persecution of Eugenics?

As we turn our attention to the inhumane treatment and experimentation on concentration camp prisoners in Nazi Germany, we ask, “What did we learn from those atrocities?” Dr. Ed Gabriele, Special Assistant for Ethics and Professional Integrity for the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery was the convener of the Smithsonian conference titled “The Tuskegee Experience.” He challenges us with these provocative questions: How can we imagine and bring about a new world, free from such tragedy? How can we prevent the worst by promoting the best of who we are and what can we do to protect the dignity and respect that is fundamental to being human?  The felt experience of Nazi Germany did not die with the deaths of the victims of the well-organized, mass killing machine. Some victims lived to bear witness. What happens to those like them who survive such unspeakable trauma at the hands of other people? They could not utter their stories for decades. The collective experience penetrated the very cells of the children yet to be born to the survivors after their liberation. And of the 20 million who perished, every last one, Poles and Germans included, was a human being.

The stage upon which this was played out in Europe was populated by hundreds of millions of people, varied but nonetheless fully human. One group operated on the assumption that some groups were not.  The Jews, the Slavs, the people with disabilities, the gypsies, the homosexuals, none of them was sub-human. But that is how the Third Reich saw them.  Although the German doctors were the best in the world, they were seduced by the power to create a master race, free from disease, disability, undesirable traits. Dr. Sheldon Rubenfeld, a professor at Baylor Medical School annd the founder/director of the Center for Medicine After the Holocaust (CMATH). posed this:  “Physicians in Nazi Germany betrayed the Hippocratic Oath, the ethical bedrock of the medical profession… If the best physicians of the early 20th C. could abandon their patients, can we, the best physicians of the 21st C. be certain that we will not do the same?” (Rubenfeld, MATH, p.5)  

The Human Genome project has vast potential to bring about positive change in human health. But how will it be used by those who hold its power in their hands?  What ethical boundaries have been or need to be established to protect the individual of today or the progeny of the future? How can contemporary ethicists keep up with the pace of technological advances in genomic research? How can we ensure our initiatives are effective?  

Today we commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments.  We can look earlier, 100 years ago, when “Alexis Carrel, a French surgeon at the Rockefeller Institute, won the Nobel Prize for his blood-vessel-suturing technique and contributions to organ transplantation. But here’s the thing: Carrel wasn’t interested in immortality of the masses.  He was a eugenicist: organ transplantation and life extension were ways to preserve what he saw as the superior white race, which he believed was being polluted by less intelligent and inferior stock, namely the poor, uneducated, and nonwhite. He dreamed of never-ending life for those he deemed worthy, and death or forced sterilization for everyone else.”(Skloot, Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, p. 59).  

It wasn’t until 1951, when the cancer cells of a poor black woman named Henrietta Lacks were taken without her knowledge, grown in the lab, and have been sold since to researchers around the world.  The HeLa cells, as they’re known, have made possible advances in disease research.  Yet when Henrietta died, her family wasn’t informed for decades, never compensated, and to this day they remain poor, unable to afford health insurance.  Henrietta Lacks’ story is a collision of ethics, race, and medicine.  Which leads back to the question, How can we prevent the worst by promoting the best of who we are and what can we do to protect the dignity and respect that is fundamental to being human?

R. Kevin Mallinson, PhD professor of nursing who has researched this subject, talks about the importance of “followers.” Many times, he says, “we talk about the ‘leaders of tomorrow’ and how we must learn to lead well. Yet, the majority of professional healthcare personnel will actually be followers…So, how do we teach the followers to be good at their role?  How do we teach them to raise their hand and question something that doesn’t seem right?” (e-mail correspondence of 4/4/12): “I’ve experienced, and probably many of you have, members of the patient care team who defer to the physician, just because he or she is the attending.” Dr. Mallinson says, “It’s important to teach students to engage in respectful, open dialogue in which questions about the treatment of individuals can be examined in the light of day.  When students question those in leadership, they can do so in a professional, positive manner.”

Last semester, Dr. Mallinson took 10 students on a Holocaust tour in Eastern Europe.  What he learned, he told me, was this:  “that the annihilation of a people has its beginnings in the stereotyping of people.” Can it, does it, happen today?  Unquestionably! How does Dr. Mallinson raise his students’ consciousness about it?  He said, “We focused on teaching our students how to counter the comments in the Emergency Room that this next patient ‘..is one of those people who doesn’t care about his/her health.’ Or many of you may have heard, ‘this person is…a frequent flyer.’ Each of these comments and others that denigrate the patient because of his/her ethnic heritage, gender, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, or social status is not to be tolerated. Once we can dehumanize the individual (e.g. the Jew), we move closer to considering them less than human… It’s vital, Dr. Mallinson suggests, that the majority of people learn how to be good followers; [we] need to question authority figures and expose hate and discrimination for what they are…unacceptable.”

What Nourishes a Different Future?

Contemporary medical education pumps student doctors and researchers with food for the brain.  We can think of the left side of the brain like a heavy child on a seesaw, leaving his skinny cousin up in the air. What sorely needs nourishment is the right side, to bring us back into balance. What is the essence of the right side of the brain?  It’s creativity, generativity, the wisdom of the heart.  It’s being in touch with feelings, feelings that may bring us close to our own pain and suffering so that, rather than seeing people different from us as “the other,” we can empathize with them, have compassion for them, and treat them, as the Golden Rule says, the way we would want to be treated.  

It is essential for doctors and other health care professionals to more fully develop the right side of the brain. Moses Maimonides, preeminent Jewish philosopher and physician, born in Cordoba in the 12th Century, said, “Inspire me with love for my art and for thy creatures.  In the sufferer let me see only the human being.” He was onto something.  

One example of a contemporary and very left brained scientist is Jill Bolte Taylor, who suffered a massive stroke at age 37.  A neuroanatomist from Harvard, her knowledge of the brain enabled her to understand the rapid loss of mental function and slow recovery which took eight years. Throughout the process, Taylor learned about the untapped power of her right brain, which led to this understanding: “our culture prizes the admirable but often frantic work of the left brain, putting us in stressed, competitive modes of thinking and acting, often aggressive and argumentative. “My stroke of insight,” she writes, “is that at the core of my right hemisphere consciousness is a character that is directly connected to my feeling of deep inner peace” (page 133) and she suggests we consider lifestyles that foster peace, unity, and joy. How do we get there?

In order for us to proceed differently as humanity, we have to acknowledge and lift up what we’ve learned from the past.  We cannot change what happened, but we can help envision a new outcome.  his is true for people with a heritage of victimization, like me, as well as those whose honored profession, like medicine, share a dark past. This isn’t easy or painless, but critical.  We are at a tipping point.

Insight into Healing

In closing, I want to share with you about one courageous woman who survived Auschwitz. Eva Mozes Kor is an activist and recognized speaker on the Holocaust, human rights, and medical ethics. Eva is on a campaign to educate the world about the need for forgiveness in order to heal from trauma.  Perhaps what is more remarkable about her is that she was not only a survivor.  Eva was one of a small group of victims who, in the name of scientific research, was experimented on by the Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele, from 1944 to 1945.  Miraculously, and through her resilience, she and her twin sister Miriam, survived the experiments and were liberated just before their 11th birthday.  The rest of their family was killed.

In 1993 Eva traveled to Germany and met with a Nazi doctor from Auschwitz, Dr. Munch.  She had heard that this man had shown some compassion in the camp. Eva wrote, “Surprisingly, he was very kind to me. Even more surprising, I found that I liked him.  I asked him if he knew anything about the gas chambers in Auschwitz.  He said what he knew had been fueling the nightmares he lived with every single day.” Dr. Munch bore witness to Eva Kor of what he saw in those gas chambers and what he did, signing mass death certificates with no names on them. Eva invited Dr. Munch to accompany her to Auschwitz in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of liberation. She also asked him to sign an affidavit about what he had said and seen and done and to do so at the site of those killings. He agreed.

It meant so much to Eva Kor that she would have an original document witnessed and signed by a Nazi–a participant, not a survivor and not a liberator.  She felt so grateful, she wanted to find a way to thank Dr. Munch.  But for nearly a year she was unable to answer the question, “How can one thank a Nazi doctor?” One day it occurred to her she could write a simple letter of forgiveness for all that he had done.  “What she learned from this discovery was that forgiveness is not for the perpetrator, but for the victim. It is not about condoning or forgetting the trauma. Eva learned, “I had the power to forgive. No one could give me this power, and no one could take it away. That made me feel powerful. It made me feel good to have power over my life as a survivor.” Encouraged by her former English professor to think about forgiving Dr. Mengele, Eva realized that, too, was in her power. At the 50th anniversary reunion in Auschwitz with Dr. Munch and both their families, Eva read her personal statement of forgiveness and signed it. She wrote, “Immediately I felt that a burden of pain had been lifted from my shoulders, a pain I had lived with for 50 years: I was no longer a victim of Auschwitz, no longer a victim of my tragic past.  I was free. Anger and hate are seeds that germinate war. Forgiveness is a seed for peace. It is the ultimate act of self-healing.”

By looking at all this and allowing ourselves to feel from the place of our heart, we can finally heal and break the cycle of dehumanization, victimization, and genocide. We cannot afford to let this happen on our watch.


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