Latvian and Nazi abortion policies

A follow on to yesterday’s look at Germain Grisez’s historical portrait of Soviet abortion policy in his 1970 book “Abortion: The Myths, The Realities, and the Arguments“. This shorter excerpt focuses on Latvian abortion policy inspired by the Soviets, but which introduced a new and non-therapeutic, non-medical basis for abortion based on characteristics and class status.

The Nazis later built upon the “characteristics and class” approach to abortion policy as a means to realize their vision of a “purified master race.” A Nazi innovation in this regard was likely the first-ever justification for abortion based on the “viability of the fetus”:

Between 1920 and 1936 the Soviet experiment was followed with interest by observers in other countries. The legalization of abortion in many places became a political issue; radical legislators now saw this measure as an integral part of socialization. In some places new laws were passed, but non of them were as radical as the Soviet decree of 1920. All embodied a compromise: abortion became legal in certain kinds of cases and in accord with other definite requirements.

Latvia, then an independent republic bordering on the U.S.S.R., apparently was the First Nation to pass such a compromise abortion law. The act, passed December 30, 1932, provided that any attempt to procure abortion against the pregnant woman’s wish remained illegal. But a physician inducing abortion to prevent loss of light or serious damage to health of the prospective mother was not regarded as criminal. These two provisions incorporated the principle of the woman’s wish—in a negative way, by requiring her consent—and the principle of therapeutic abortion, which in almost every country was accepted in practice.

But then the law went on to provide that abortion would not be illegal if:

  1. It were performed during the first three months of pregnancy;
  2. With the woman’s consent;
  3. By a physician;
  4. To prevent one of the following: (a) The birth of a child having a physician or mental defect (the “eugenic” indication); (b) The birth of a child conceived in virtue of certain proscribed acts—seduction, rape, incest, and criminal assault (the “humanitarian” indication); (c) The birth of a child that would cause privation to the pregnant woman or her family (the “social” indication).

In these provisions the Latvian law accepted the principle of abortion as a method of birth prevention where there were serious indications of a “eugenic,” “humanitarian,” or “social” kind.

We shall see much discussion of these indications in subsequent debates. The essential point is to notice that they represent a principle distinct from therapeutic abortion. In therapeutic abortion the objective is not to prevent the birth of the child, although in fact the child is aborted for the mother’s benefit. In the compromise legislation of which we see a model in the Latvian act of 1932, the purpose of the indicated and permitted non-therapeutic abortion precisely is to prevent the birth of children falling into certain classes. Insofar as abortion is admitted as a method of birth prevention the principle of the Soviet law is accepted. However, insofar as specific indications are required, a new principle, derived neither from the traditional view nor from Soviet theory, is operative.

Information about the success of the Latvian compromise is not easily had. The original law was amended by an act of March 22, 1935, which eliminated the “social” indication and tightened up conditions under which most physicians could induce abortion. Under the 1935 amendment only gynecologists and physicians especially appointed by the state were allowed to perform the operation outside a hospital or clinic.

One of the bitterest battles concerning abortion law relaxation was fought in Germany between 1920-1933. Proponents of a relaxed law did not succeed in winning official acceptance for their position until the Nazis came to power. Then the Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Diseases in Posterity, 1933, was passed (amended 1935).

Under this law, a pregnant woman selected for sterilization might also be aborted provided she consented, if there were no medical contraindications and if the fetus were not already viable.

Also under this law, a physician might induce abortion (as well as sterilize a woman) to avert serious danger to a woman’s life or health. In this case also the woman’s consent was required. Except in emergency cases, each operation had to be reviewed in advance by a court of referees, which consisted of medical practitioners. The abortionist and the review court of referees were supposed to be independent of one another both in judgment and in action. All induced and spontaneous abortions were to be reported to the Medical Officer of Health.

At first glance it might seem that the Nazi legalization of abortion was minimal. To begin with, the law required the woman’s consent—abortion was voluntary, not imposed. However, William Russell, a member of the American diplomatic corps in Berlin prior to World War II, wrote:

“The Nazis laid great stress on the fact that everything the nation did at their command was ‘voluntary.’ Even the compulsory two-year period of service in the army is ‘voluntary.’ Every boy is required by law to serve, so the Nazis call it volunteering. I have no doubt but that even those unfortunates who were slaughtered in the 1934 purge died ‘voluntarily.’”

The essence of the Nazi law was not, then, that it required the woman’s consent. One distinctive feature of this law was the fact that it used the viability of the fetus as a significant dividing line. So far as I know, this was the first law to use this criterion, and thus many current proponents of abortion law relaxation follow in the Nazis’ footsteps at least to this extent.

The Nazi law fit into the National Socialist outlook just as the Soviet law fit into the Communist outlook. The Soviets liberated women from traditional morality in order to use her in the work of the triumphant social-economic revolution. But the Nazis aimed at quality—the reign of the supermen—the purified master race. Thus their program depended upon getting rid of weak and inferior specimens, while keeping the stronger and purer ones. Of course, the Soviet decree of 1936 adopted a position on abortion not far different from that which the Nazis had put into effect in 1933.

So far as we know, however, the Soviet program never led to the consequences that developed in Germany. There the program of selective sterilization and abortion was developed by the medical men themselves into a large-scale program of “euthanasia”—that is, murder of mental patients and others, even German soldiers mutilated in the war. The euthanasia program blazed the trail for the even more extensive mass murders of Jews, gypsies, and other so-called “contaminants of Aryan purity.”

Thousands of German, non-Jewish children were disposed of in the euthanasia program, many for a social reason rather than because of any inherent defect. This murderous project was not initiated by Nazi officials but by the medical profession itself; in fact, no law ever gave it formal sanction. Killings were done under the supervision and by the direct acts of psychiatrists and pediatricians. Euthanasia murders were passed upon by independent medical consulting boards, similar to those required in the 1933 act to approve abortion. The murders of the children were accomplished mainly by starvation or by overdoses of drugs. But this project did not end until allied troops overran the institutions concerned, and as time passed the infants became older and the indications slimmer—for example, “badly modeled ears,” bed wetters, and children “difficult to educate.”

Certainly one cannot say that the Nazi sterilization and abortion law would have led to these consequences if the Nazi regime had not been what it was as a whole. On the other hand, one cannot dismiss the whole affair as mere Nazi insanity. The vast majority of participants in the affair were no less sane and no less upright than the members of any modern nation’s medical profession.

The roots of the euthanasia program actually antedate the rise of Hitler. In 1920, a physician and a lawyer—Alfred Hoche and Karl Binding, both prominent men in their fields—published a very influential little book: The Release of the Destruction of Life Without Value. The principle of their position was that some human beings are worthless and must be killed for the sake of quality of life.

Thus leading members of the medical profession were quite prepared by 1933 to put into effect the Nazi program of selective sterilization and abortion, and this same medical profession itself organized and pushed ahead the euthanasia program of the late 1930s which merged into the genocide program of 1941-1945. Some physicians did refuse to cooperate in the “euthanasia” murders and they were not punished for their refusal.

What is the human person? Where does our unalienable dignity find its source? Are powerful actors or states able to legitimately alter the basic human right to life? Do we have rights that go deeper than the ever-changing ability of a nation’s law and culture sensibilities suggest?

Is it helpful to imagine all of creation—this world and the wider universe—as essentially a technical-style machine, if the result of that thinking leads to imagining human persons are disposable in the same way that the components of a machine matter less than its overall functioning?

It seems to me that if we are simply concerned with achieving the “greatest good” without examining either what constitutes “the good” or the extent of the costs of achieving that good on every human person, then we are vulnerable to waking up having found that we’ve constructed the latest version of a terribly oppressive society.