"Ordinary Ethics: The Practice of X-Ray-/Radium-Sterilization in Nazi Germany and Associated Medical Scientific Research"

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Gabriele Moser (University of Heidelberg)

"Ordinary Ethics: The Practice of X-Ray-/Radium-Sterilization in Nazi Germany and Associated Medical Scientific Research"

(Introduced by: Aleksandra Loewenaum Oxford Brookes University)

[15min51; 12 slides]


This paper was presented to the international symposium:

"Reassessing Nazi Human Experiments and Coerced Research, 1933-1945: New Findings, Interpretations and Problems"

4 - 7 July 2013, Wadham College, Oxford


Convened by Paul Weindling (Oxford Brookes University), Marius Turda (Oxford Brookes University), and Volker Roelcke (University of Giessen).

Kindly funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, and the University of Giessen


Abstract:Although a wide range of historical research has been conducted into the Nazi sterilization law and on its victims, the use of X-rays and radium in order to produce infertility has received only a little attention so far. When the 'Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases' (Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses) was approved on 14 July 1933, surgical intervention seemed the only known way of performing sterilization in men and women. Long stays in hospital, the difficulty of the operation on women and high mortality rates among the patients operated upon, led to discussions not only among Nazi politicians, who feared for the acceptance of the sterilization law, but also among medical practitioners and medical scientists. On 25 February 1936 the 5th enactment for the performance of the sterilization law was released by the Reichsministers of Interior and of Justice. From this date sterilization by ionizing radiation (X-Ray and Radium) was introduced as an alternative to surgical intervention. Approximately 7,000 women fell victim to this procedure which was not only sterilizing, but in fact castrating.


The medical scientific community, especially physicians specializing in gynaecology and in radiology, played a quite active part in modifying the initial regulations of the law, and they also accompanied the course of practice with scientific studies during the following years. Besides some medical theses, which have been produced by the physicians involved and have only been completed after the end of World War II, there also exists a survey about the practice of sterilization in about 90 medical institutions in Nazi Germany. These findings provide not only a glance at everyday medical practice in respect of national socialist eugenics, they also allow an insight into the field of action of physicians during this period. Finally I want to discuss the problem of medical ethical guidelines which become modified within a generalized system of shifting ethical baselines, at the latest with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, within which a comprehensive erosion of humanitarian positions is recognizable.


Bio: Gabriele Moser is a member of the Institute for the History and Ethics of Medicine at Heidelberg University



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