Dr. Dianne Irving on Human Experimentation part-2

Part 2 (continued from yesterday)

I had earlier received a call from bioethics guru Art Caplan. He was organizing the first-ever conference on Bioethics and the Holocaust, in Minnesota. He had remembered that I had told him one time about my earlier thesis on the Nazi medical war crimes and especially that I had bought films about the Holocaust from the National Archives—could he borrow them for the conference, etc.? If I could help him with this, he would be sure to get me into the by-invitation-only (and heavily guarded) conference. (You can hear the various presentations at this conference, available from http://www.chgs.umn.edu/educational/confAudio.html.)

So there I was in Minnesota, sitting in the audience after already three of five days of this amazingly tense conference. Oddly enough, the Holocaust—like abortion—was one issue that we bioethics students were not allowed to talk about in class, nor was it ever addressed in the rapidly bulging bioethics literature, so I was eager to attend this conference dedicated to such a “verboten” issue in bioethics. The fellow on my left turned out to be a German Lutheran pastor. While a young boy, he remembered how his house’s back yard backed up to the woods near Bergen Belsen, and he recounted to me so sadly how often they would see sick, tortured, bone-bare starved, often naked escaped prisoners wandering fearfully, desperately, and aimlessly through those tangled woods. Sometimes the local people would sneak them food and water, but they too were terrified to be caught giving aid. Those memories of his boyhood were also etched into his memory as well—so much so that it was the major reason why he became a pastor, and why he had traveled all the way from Germany to attend this unique conference in Minnesota. The very tense program had consisted of researchers, bioethicists, and Holocaust victims taking turns presenting their arguments as to why the data which resulted from those horrific experiments should or should not be used now to help others. Of course, the Holocaust victims who presented their arguments were in total agreement that such blood-tainted data should not be used. They were getting older and grayer now, sometimes barely able to hobble to and from the microphone, but powerfully persuasive speakers. One researcher, who for two days argued vehemently that the data should be used, walked up to the microphone again this day and began his same drill yet again. So we were totally astonished when, right in the middle of his paper, he stopped, became very silent, put his head down, shook with grief, took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeve, and laid bare the various tattoos from Dauchau on his arms! No, he recanted, he was so sorry, he just couldn’t do it, he must change his argument and agree with the other Holocaust victims that such data should not be used!

As he pathetically apologized and slumped off of the stage, the next Holocaust victim slowly limped with great effort to the microphone to present her own arguments. I noticed at once that she was so young—how could she have been a Holocaust victim and yet be so young? She didn’t even look Jewish. The blonde, blue-eyed victim began her speech. At the very young age of about three, she and her sister had been used by Mengele in his infamous twin experiments. Her sister was the “control”; she was the “patient.” Mengele kept them in cages right in his laboratory, just off his offices. The cages measured 1 ½ by 1 ½ by 1 ½ meters. 

During the mornings Mengele would come into the lab to visit with his “girls”; such times he was always dressed impeccably in his suit. He would take the girls out of their cages and bounce them on his knees, asking them to call him “Papa.” But in the afternoons he [would] come back to the lab wearing his lab coat, and the girls knew then that it was time for more experimenting! 

I really thought I was hallucinating! I literally felt my body sinking right straight through the seat of my chair, even down through the hard wooden floor itself, and below. I grabbed the leg of the poor German pastor on my left to keep me from free-falling through to the basement—it was HER! This was the pathetic little girl I had done my biochemistry thesis on, whose photo of her tortured pain-wracked tiny body had been etched on my brain since those days long ago in the Library of Congress! It just couldn’t possibly BE! But it was. I listened to her entire presentation, almost mouthing the words before she could even say them. The kind pastor understood; I had told him my story the afternoon he had told me his. “Go meet her,” he insisted, “you must!” So trembling, and somehow deeply embarrassed and oddly mortified, I waited for her on the steps of the building as she came out. As soon as I (rather awkwardly) explained things to her she completely lost her composure, and the two of us just sank down onto the steps together and talked and cried for quite a while. My little Gypsy girl now has a name—Susan Seiler Vigorito. The final title of my doctoral dissertation at Georgetown was, “A Philosophical and Scientific Analysis of the Nature of the Early Human Embryo” (finally defended university-wide in 1991).

I realize now that the war has never really ended; nor has the quest for “eugenics.” What could not be accomplished on the battlefield is now being accomplished behind locked doors in laboratories around the world. And I ask myself on a daily basis now Bronowski’s piercing question, “Is you is, or is you ain’t my baby?”

Dr. Dianne Irving is a graduate of Dunbarton College of the Holy Cross with a degree in biochemistry and minors in philosophy and theology. She is a former career-appointed bench research biochemist and biologist at the National Institutes of Health (NCI), has done extensive graduate work in biology in the Department of Biology at Georgetown University (Washington, D.C.), and received her master’s and doctorate degrees in philosophy from the Department of Philosophy at Georgetown University—concentrating in both the history of philosophy and in bioethics (Kennedy Institute of Ethics). Her doctoral dissertation on human embryo research was entitled “A Philosophical and Scientific Analysis of the Nature of the Early Human Embryo.” Dr. Irving has published, lectured, and debated widely in academia, in the media, in pro-life, and in parishes on the topics of abortion, human embryo research, human cloning, stem cell research, genetic engineering, ethics in research using human subjects, and medical ethics—including issues concerning research with the mentally ill, and served as a consultant on these issues for many professional organizations. 

This article has been reprinted with permission and can be found at http://www.humanlifematters.org/2012/02/dr.html.