Is it ethical to use data from Nazi medical experiments?

Results of Nazi hypothermia experiments were cited in papers from the 1950s-1980s. Rich Engelbrecht/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

During World War II, Nazi doctors had unfettered access to human beings they could use in medical experiments in any way they chose. In one way, these experiments were just another form of mass torture and murder so our moral judgement of them is clear.

But they also pose an uncomfortable moral challenge: what if some of the medical experiments yielded scientifically sound data that could be put to good use? Would it be justifiable to use that knowledge?

Using data

It’s tempting to deflect the question by saying the data are useless – that the bad behaviour must have produced bad science, so we don’t even have to think about it. But there is no inevitable link between the two because science is not a moral endeavour. If scientific data is too poor to use, it’s because of poor study design and analysis, not because of the bad moral character of the scientist. And in fact, some of the data from Nazi experiments is scientifically sound enough to be useful.

The hypothermia experiments in which people were immersed in ice water until they became unconscious (and many died), for instance, established the rate of cooling of humans in cold water and provided information about when re-warming might be successful. Data from the Nazi experiments was cited in scientific papers from the 1950s to the 1980s, but with no indication of its nature.

The original source appears as a paper by Leo Alexander, published in Combined Intelligence Objectives Subcommittee Files. This is an unusual type of publication to be mentioned in a scientific journal, and it’s unclear that it comes from the trial of Nazi doctors at Nurmemberg.

In the late 1980s, US researcher Robert Pozos argued the Nazi hypothermia data was critical to improving methods of reviving people rescued from freezing water after boat accidents, but the New England Journal of Medicine rejected his proposal to publish the data openly.

Use of data generated by the Nazis from the deadly phosgene gas experiments has also been considered, and rejected by the US Environmental Protection Agency, even though it could have helped save lives of those accidentally exposed.

A tricky conundrum

So should the results of Nazi experiments ever be taken up and used? A simple utilitarian response would look to the obvious consequences. If good can come to people now and in the future from using the data, then its use is surely justified. After all, no further harm can be done to those who died.

But a more sophisticated utilitarian would think about the indirect and subtle consequences. Perhaps family members of those who were experimented on would be distressed to know the data was being used. And their distress might outweigh the good that could be done. Or perhaps using the data would send the message that the experiments weren’t so bad after all, and even encourage morally blinkered doctors to do in their own unethical experiments.

Of course, these bad consequences could be avoided simply be making sure the data is used in secret, never entering the published academic literature. But recommending deception to solve a moral problem is clearly problematic in itself.

The trouble is that focusing on the consequences – whether good or bad – of using Nazi data, misses an important point: there’s a principle at stake here. Even if some good could come of using the data, it would just not be right to use it. It would somehow deny or downplay the evil of what was done in the experiments that generated them.

This is a common sentiment, but if it is to hold ethical weight we need to be able to spell it out and give it a solid foundation. A little reflection shows that, as a society, we don’t have an absolute objection to deriving some good out of something bad or wrong. Murder victims sometimes become organ donors, for instance, but there is no concern that is inappropriate.

Paying our debt

So how to decide when it’s all right to derive some good from a wrongdoing? I think the answer lies in considering what society owes ethically to the victims of a wrongdoing. The ongoing investigations into institutional child sexual abuse in a number of Western countries have brought this question sharply into focus.

The wrongs done to victims of abuse are over but that’s not the end of the matter. Victims are ethically owed many things: recognition that what was done to them was indeed wrong, a credible indication that the society takes this seriously, an effort to identify, apprehend and punish the perpetrators, and compensation for their ongoing suffering and disadvantage. But beyond this, we have an obligation not to forget, and not to whitewash.

Victims of Nazi medical experiments are owed these same things. If society’s obligations to them have broadly been met through the Nuremberg trials and the ongoing global abhorrence of the awful things done to people in World War II, then it might be ethically possible to use the data if it could lead to some good.

But this must only be done with absolute openness about the source of the data, and clear condemnation of the way it was obtained. Citation of the Nazi hypothermia data in the medical and scientific literature from the 1950s to the 1980s gives no hint at all about of what is being referred to, and so falls ethically short.

Click here to read more articles in The Conversation’s series On Human Experiments.