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Euthanasia – Popular Culture’s Misrepresentation of Disabled People and the Holocaust

by | Sep 20, 2023

By Meghan Schrader

Meghan is an autistic person who is an instructor at E4 Texas – University of Texas (Austin) and an EPC-USA board member.

Usually, I strongly oppose making comparisons between the United States “aid in dying” movement and the Nazi T4 program. It makes opponents of assisted suicide look paranoid and illogical. Rather than considering the parallels between some of their thinking and the thinking that drove the T4 program, they cite Goodwin’s Law. And, the comparison implies that all of the supporters are evil and want to commit crimes against humanity, which isn’t true. In 2011 I had a pastor who strongly supported assisted suicide because of her work with the terminally ill, and she was not a Nazi. The US movement hasn’t gone as far as Canada’s, and a comparison between it and the Nazi T4 Euthanasia program would strike most people as silly. Most regular people who support it are uninformed and naïve, not evil. And, if the people who truly believed in carefully restricting assisted suicide to terminally ill people and monitoring for abuse remained in charge of society, then we could be sure that US policies would not lead to the human rights abuses we see in Canada.

However, not all US proponents think that way, they would like the United States to be like Canada, and Canada’s program strikes me as being T4 – 2.0. The Canadian government is meeting the needs of people with disabilities with tokenism, and telling them to kill themselves. They’re telling disabled people that it would be a good thing for them to end their lives and give their internal organs to other people. The Canadian media has published treatises celebrating the fact that MAiD will save the Canadian medical system millions of dollars a year. People who support MAiD in Canada point out that no one is literally being strapped to a table and lethally injected, but that’s not the standard that just societies should use to determine whether a policy is benevolent. The Canadian government does not deserve credit for not rounding up unwilling disabled people up and gassing them in a van.

I think that one of the reasons for the ignorance is how the media portrays euthanasia and the Holocaust. The T4 program is not generally portrayed in movies about the Holocaust, and some movies about the Holocaust present euthanasia and suicide as something people reasonably did to get away from the Nazis. For instance, in Schindler’s List, there’s a scene where the Nazis are about to storm a Jewish hospital, so the hospital staff administers poison to all the patients. It’s strongly implied that the doctors did this to protect them from dying a terrible death at the hands of the Nazis, and that the patients were grateful to the doctors for doing it. In the context of what happened to the disabled in the T4 program, that’s a very problematic way to portray euthanasia in a film about the Holocaust.

Similarly, I love the film Swing Kids, which portrays the use of American Swing jazz music to resist the Nazis. But, the character I most identity with, a musician who stands up at a music venue and proclaims that he will not play German music anymore because it’s been co-opted by the Nazis, dies by suicide right after that speech. Within the individual narrative itself, it’s strongly implied that he did this to avoid being arrested by the Nazis for his outburst. But, in the context of the T4 program, that scene is deeply problematic. It is again portraying the death of a disabled person as an escape, which is what drove some of the support for euthanasia in Nazi Germany. Moreover, there’s a scene right after the musician’s speech where a Nazi-supporting friend calls him out for his outburst about Germans killing Jews and gypsies. The friend says, “What was that all about, the Jews and the Gypsies? What about the cripples and the retards, you know that’s who you belong with. If I were you, I wouldn’t worry about anybody but myself, because we’re coming after you next.” This is not historically accurate. The medical Holocaust of 300,000 people with disabilities started before the Nazis started to systematically kill people from other identity groups, and the Nazis took a lot of their ideas from the eugenics ideology that was prevalent in the United States in the 1930s.

Hence, I do think that the inaccurate representation of the killing of disabled people during the Holocaust in popular media is undermining people’s ability to recognize parallels between some of the things that the mainstream bioethics movement says about the right to die and violence against disabled people in world history. If people understood this history, they might not think that expansive euthanasia programs, and their precursor, physician assisted suicide, are such a good idea.

Categories: Euthanasia