Psychiatry and political-institutional abuse from the historical perspective: the ethical lessons of the Nuremberg Trial on their 60th anniversary

Author: Lopez-Munoz, F.; Alamo, C.; Dudley, M.; Rubio, G.; Garcia-Garcia, P.; Molina, J.D.; Okasha, A.

Description: Sixty years ago at the Nuremberg Trials, 23 Nazi leaders were tried as war criminals, in what was known as “The Doctors’ Trial”. This trial exposed a perverse system of the criminal use of medicine in the fields of public health and human research. These practices, in which racial hygiene constituted one of the fundamental principles and euthanasia programmes were the most obvious consequence, violated the majority of known bioethical principles. Psychiatry played a central role in these programmes, and the mentally ill were the principal victims. The aim of the present work is to review, from the historical perspective, the antecedents of the shameful euthanasia programmes for the mentally ill, the procedures involved in their implementation and the use of mentally ill people as research material. The Nuremberg Code, a direct consequence of the Doctors’ Trial, is considered to be the first international code of ethics for research with human beings, and represented an attempt to prevent any repeat of the tragedy that occurred under Nazism. Nevertheless, the last 60 years have seen continued government-endorsed psychiatric abuse and illegitimate use of psychoactive drugs in countries such as the Soviet Union or China, and even in some with a long democratic tradition, such as the United States. Even today, the improper use of psychiatry on behalf of governments is seen to be occurring in numerous parts of the globe: religious repression in China, enforced hospitalization in Russia, administration of psychoactive drugs in immigrant detention centres in Australia, and the application of the death penalty by lethal injection and psychiatric participation in coercive interrogation at military prisons, in relation to the USA. The Declaration of Madrid in 1996 constituted the most recent attempt to eradicate, from the ethical point of view, these horrendous practices. Various strategies can be used to combat such abuses, though it is uncertain how effective they are in preventing them.

Subject headings: Ethics, Medical–history; Euthanasia; History, 20th Century; History, 21st Century; Holocaust–ethics, history; Human Rights Abuses–ethics, history; Humans; Political Systems–history; Psychiatry–ethics, history

Publication year: 2007

Journal or book title: Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry

Volume: 31

Issue: 4

Pages: 791-806

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Type: Journal Article

Serial number: 36