Some scenes from academic life in Germany and Austria today:

—For the 1989/1990 winter semester, Dr. Hartmut Kliemt, a professor of philosophy at the University of Duisburg, a small town in the north of Germany, offered a course in which my book Practical Ethics was the principal text assigned to the class. First published in English in 1979, this book has been widely used in philosophy courses in North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia, and has been translated into German, Italian, Spanish, and Swedish.1 Until Kliemt announced his course, it had never evoked anything more than lively discussion. Kliemt’s course, however, was subjected to organized and repeated disruption by protesters objecting to the use of the book on the grounds that in one of its ten chapters it advocates active euthanasia for severely disabled newborn infants. When after several weeks the disruptions showed no sign of abating, Kliemt was compelled to abandon the course.

—The European society for the Philosophy of Medicine and Health Care is a learned society that does just what one would expect an organization with that name to do: it promotes the study of the philosophy of medicine and health care. In 1990 it planned its fourth annual conference, to be held in Bochum, Germany, in June. The intended theme of the conference was “Consensus Formation and Moral Judgment in Health Care.” During the days leading up to the conference, literature was distributed in Bochum and elsewhere in Germany by the “Anti-Euthanasia Forum,” stating that “under the cover of tolerance and the cry of democracy and liberalism, extermination strategies will be discussed. On these grounds we will attempt to prevent the Bochum Congress taking place.” On June 5, scholars who were about to attend the conference received a letter from the secretary of the society notifying them that it was being moved to Maastricht, in the Netherlands, because the German organizers (two professors from the Center for Medical Ethics at the Ruhr University in Bochum) had been confronted with “anti-bioethics agitation, threats and intimidation,” and could not guarantee the safety of the participants.”

—In October 1990, Dr. Helga Kuhse, senior research fellow at the Centre for Human Bioethics at Monash University in Australia and author of The Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine in Medicine: A Critique, 2 was invited to give a lecture at the Institute for Anatomy of the University of Vienna. A group calling itself the “Forum of Groups for the Crippled and Disabled” announced that it would protest against the lecture, stating that “academic freedom has ethical limits, and we expect the medical faculty to declare that human life is inviolable.” The lecture was then canceled by the faculty of medicine. The dean of the faculty, referring to Dr. Kuhse, told the press, “We didn’t know at all who that was.”3

—The Institute for Philosophy at the University of Hamburg decided, with the agreement of faculty members and a student representative, to appoint a professor in the field of applied ethics. The list of candidates was narrowed down to six. At this point in selecting a professor in Germany, the standard procedure is to invite each of the candidates to give a lecture. The lectures were announced but did not take place. Students and protesters from outside the university objected to the advertising of a chair in applied ethics on the grounds that this field raised questions about whether some human lives were worth living. The protesters blocked the entrances to the lecture theaters and blew whistles to drown out any attempts by the speakers to lecture. The university canceled the lectures. A few weeks later, a new list of candidates was announced. Two philosophers active in the field of applied ethics were no longer in consideration; they were replaced by philosophers who have done relatively little work in applied ethics; one, for example, is best known for his work in aesthetics. One of those dropped from the short list was Dr. Anton Leist, author of a book that offers ethical arguments in defense of the right to abortion,4 and also a coeditor of Analyse & Kritik; one of the few German journals publishing philosophy in the mode practiced in English-speaking countries. Ironically, a recent special issue of the journal was devoted to Practical Ethics and the issue of academic freedom in Germany.5

—In February 1991 a round-table discussion was to be held in Frankfurt, organized jointly by the adult education sections of both the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. The theme was “Aid in Dying,” and among the participants was Norbert Hoerster, a highly respected German professor of jurisprudence, who has written in support of the principle of euthanasia. As the meeting was about to get underway, a group of people challenged the organizers, accusing them of giving a platform to a “fascist” and an “advocate of modern mass extermination.” They distributed leaflets headed “No Discussion about Life and Death.” The meeting had to be abandoned.


—The International Wittgenstein Symposium, held annually at Kirchberg, in Austria, has established itself as one of the principal philosophical conferences on the continent of Europe. The fifteenth International Wittgenstein Conference was to have been held in August 1991, on the theme “Applied Ethics.” Arrangements for the program were made by philosophers from the Institute for Philosophy at the University of Salzburg. Among those invited to speak were Professor Georg Meggle, of the University of Saarbrücken, Professor R.M. Hare, former White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford, and now a professor of philosophy at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and myself. When the names of those invited became known, threats were made to the president of the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein Society, Dr. Adolf Hübner, that the symposium would be disrupted unless the invitations to Professor Meggle and me were withdrawn. In other public discussions with opponents of the program, the boycott threat was extended to include several other invited professors: Hare, Kliemt, Hoerster, and Professor Dietrich Birnbacher of the department of philosophy at the Gesamthochschule in Essen.6

Dr. Hübner is not a philosopher; he is a retired agricultural veterinarian, so he read Practical Ethics only after the protest arose. On reading it, however, he formed the opinion that—as he wrote in an Austrian newspaper—the protests were “entirely justified.”7 In a long letter to the board of directors of the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein Society he wrote that “as a result of the invitations to philosophers who hold the view that ethics can be grounded and carried out in the manner of an objective critical science, an existential crisis has arisen for the Austrian Wittgenstein Symposium and the Wittgenstein Society.”8 The reference to the “objective critical science” is striking, since Hare, in particular, has devoted much of his life to insisting on the differences between ethical judgments and statements to which notions of objective truth or falsity are standardly applied.

According to some reports, opposition groups threatened to stage a display on “Kirchberg under the Nazis” if the invitations were not withdrawn. This threat proved so potent that innkeepers in Kirchberg were said to have stated that they would refuse to serve philosophers during the symposium.9 To its considerable credit, the organizing committee resisted Dr. Hübner’s proposal to withdraw the invitations from those philosophers against whom the protests were directed. Instead, it recommended that the entire symposium be canceled, since Dr. Hübner’s public intervention in the debate had made it unlikely that it could be held without disruption. This recommendation was accepted by the committee of the Austrian Wittgenstein Society, against the will of Dr. Hübner himself. There will be no Wittgenstein Symposium in 1991.

For those who believe that there is a strong consensus throughout Western Europe supporting freedom of thought and discussion in general, and academic freedom in particular, these scenes come as a shock. How they have come about, however, is not so difficult to explain. The story has its beginnings in events in which I was directly involved. It stems from an invitation I received to speak, in June 1989, at a European Symposium on “Bioengineering, Ethics, and Mental Disability,” organized jointly by Lebenshilfe, the major German organization for parents of intellectually disabled infants, and the Bishop Bekkers Institute, a Dutch organization in the same field. The symposium was to be held in Marburg, a German university town, under the auspices of the International League of Societies for Persons with Mental Handicap, and the International Association for the Scientific Study of Mental Deficiency. The program looked impressive; after an opening speech from the German minister of family affairs, the conference was to be addressed by leading geneticists, bioethicists, theologians, and health-care lawyers from the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, England, France, and, of course, Germany. I accepted the invitation; and since I was going to be in Germany anyway, I also accepted an invitation from Professor Christoph Anstötz, professor of special education at the University of Dortmund, to give a lecture a few days later on the subject “Do severely disabled newborn infants have a right to life?”

My intention in these lectures was to defend a view for which I have argued in several previously published works: that the parents of severely disabled newborn infants should be able to decide, together with their physician, whether their infant should live or die. If the parents and their medical adviser are in agreement that the infant’s life will be so miserable or so devoid of minimal satisfactions that it would be inhumane or futile to prolong life, then they should be allowed to ensure that death comes about speedily and without suffering. Such a decision might reasonably be reached, if, for instance, an infant was born with anencephaly (the term means “no brain” and infants with this condition have no prospect of ever gaining consciousness); or with a major chromosomal disorder such as trisomy 18, in which there are abnormalities of the nervous system, internal organs, and external features, and death always occurs within a few months, or at most two years; or in very severe forms of spina bifida where an exposed spinal cord leads to paralysis from the waist down, incontinence of bladder and bowel, a build-up of fluid on the brain, and, often, mental retardation. (Were these conditions to be detected in prenatal examinations, many mothers would choose to have abortions and their decisions would be widely seen as understandable.)


Parents may not always be able to make an unbiased decision concerning the future of their infant, and their decisions may not be defensible. In some cases—Down’s syndrome perhaps—the outlook for the child might be for a life without suffering, but the child would need much more care and attention, over a longer period, than a normal child would require. Some couples, feeling that they were not in a position to provide the care required, or that it would be harmful for their already existing family for them to try to do so, might oppose sustaining the infant’s life. There may, however, be other couples willing to give the child an adequate home; or the community may be in a position to take over the responsibility of providing medical care and for ensuring that the child has reasonably good conditions for living a satisfying life and developing his or her potential. In these circumstances, given that the child will not be living a life of unredeemed misery, and the parents will not be coerced into rearing that child, they can no longer insist upon having the major role in life or death decisions for their child.10

This position is, of course, at odds with the conventional doctrine of the sanctity of human life; but there are well-known difficulties in defending that doctrine in secular terms, without its traditional religious underpinnings. (Why, for example, if not because human beings are made in the image of God, should the boundary of sacrosanct life match the boundary of our species?) Among philosophers and bioethicists, the view that I was to defend is by no means extraordinary; if it has not quite reached the level of orthodoxy, it, or at least something akin to it, is widely held, and by some of the most respected scholars in the fields of both bioethics and applied ethics.11

Just a day or two before I was due to leave for Germany, my invitation to speak at the Marburg conference was abruptly withdrawn. The reason given was that, by agreeing to lecture at the University of Dortmund, I had allowed opponents of my views to argue that Lebenshilfe was providing the means for me to promote my views on euthanasia in Germany. The letter withdrawing the invitation drew a distinction between my discussing these views “behind closed doors with critical scientists who want to convince you that your attitude infringes human rights” and my promoting my position “in public.” A postscript added that several organizations of handicapped persons were planning protest demonstrations in Marburg and Dortmund against me, and against Lebenshilfe for having invited me. (Although organizations for the disabled were prominent among the protesters, these groups were strongly supported and encouraged by various coalitions against genetic engineering and reproductive technology, and also by organizations on the left that had, apparently, nothing to do with the issue of euthanasia. The “Anti-Atom Bureau,” for instance, joined the protests, presumably neither knowing nor caring about my opposition to uranium mining and nuclear power.)

The protests soon found their way into the popular press. Der Spiegel, which has a position in Germany not unlike that of Time and Newsweek in the United States, published a vehement attack on me written by Franz Christoph, the leader of the self-styled “Cripples Movement,” a militant organization of disabled people.12 The article was illustrated with photographs of the transportation of “euthanasia victims” in the Third Reich, and of Hitler’s “Euthanasia Order.” The article gave readers no idea at all of the ethical basis on which I advocated euthanasia, and it quoted spokespeople for groups of the disabled who appeared to believe that I questioned their right to life. I sent a brief reply in which I pointed out that I was advocating euthanasia not for anyone like themselves, but for severely disabled newborn infants, and that it was crucial to my defense of euthanasia that these infants would never have been capable of grasping that they are living beings with a past and a future. Hence my views cannot be a threat to anyone who is capable of wanting to go on living, or even of understanding that his or her life might be threatened. After a long delay, I received a letter from Der Spiegel telling me that, for reasons of space, they had been unable to publish my reply. Shortly afterward, however, Der Spiegel found space for a further highly critical account of my position on euthanasia, together with an interview, spread over four pages, with one of my leading opponents—and again, the same photograph of the Nazi transport vehicles.13

If Lebenshilfe had thought that they could pacify their critics by withdrawing my invitation to speak at Marburg, they had underestimated the storm that had broken loose. The protesters continued their opposition to what they were now calling the “Euthanasia Congress.” Shortly before the symposium was due to open, Lebenshilfe and the Bishop Bekkers Institute canceled the entire event. Soon after the Faculty of Special Education at the University of Dortmund decided not to proceed with my scheduled lecture there.

This was not quite the end of my experiences in Germany that summer. Dr. Georg Meggle, professor of philosophy at the University of Saarbrücken, invited me to lecture at his university in order to show that it was possible to discuss the ethics of euthanasia rationally in Germany. I hoped to use this opportunity to say that, while I understood and strongly supported every effort to prevent the resurgence of Nazi ideas, my own views about euthanasia had nothing whatsoever to do with what the Nazis did. In contrast to the Nazi ideology that the state should decide who was worthy of life, my view was designed to reduce the power of the state and allow parents to make crucial life and death decisions, both for themselves and, in consultation with their doctors, for their newborn infants. Those who argued that it is always wrong to decide that a human life is not worth living would, to be consistent, have to say that we should use all the techniques of modern medical care in order to extend to the greatest possible extent the life of every infant, no matter how hopeless the infant’s prospects might be and no matter how painful his or her existence. This was surely too cruel for any humane person to support.

Making this obvious point proved more difficult than I had expected. When I rose to speak in Saarbrücken I was greeted by a chorus of whistles and shouts from a minority of the audience determined to prevent me from speaking. Professor Meggle offered the protesters the opportunity to state why they thought I should not speak. This showed how completely they had misunderstood my position. Many obviously believed that I was politically on the far right. Another suggested that I lacked the experience with Nazism that Germans had had; he and others in the audience were taken aback when I told them that I was the child of Austrian-Jewish refugees, and that three of my grandparents had died in Nazi concentration camps. Some seemed to think that I was opposed to all measures that would advance the position of the disabled in society, whereas in fact, while I hold that some lives are so severely blighted from the beginning that they are better not continued, I also believe that once a life has been allowed to develop, then in every case everything should be done to make that life as satisfying and rich as possible. This should include the best possible education, adjusted to the needs of the child, to bring out to the maximum the particular abilities of the disabled person.

Another chance comment revealed a still deeper ignorance about my position. One protester quoted from a passage in which I compare the capacities of intellectually disabled humans and nonhuman animals. The way in which he left the quotation hanging, as if it were in itself enough to condemn me, made me realize that he thought that I was urging that we should treat disabled humans in the way we now treat nonhuman animals. He had no idea that my views about how we should treat animals are utterly different from those conventionally accepted in Western society. When I replied that, for me, to compare a human being to a nonhuman animal was not to say that the human being should be treated with less consideration, but that the animal should be treated with more, this person asked why I did not use my talents to write about the morality of our treatment of animals, rather than about euthanasia. Naturally I replied that I had done that, and that it was, indeed, precisely for my views about the suffering of animals raised on commercial farms, and used in medical and psychological research, and the need for animal liberation that I was best known in English-speaking countries; but I could see that a large part of the audience simply did not believe that I could be known anywhere as anything other than an advocate of euthanasia.14

Allowing these misconceptions to be stated did, at least, provide an opportunity for reply. Someone else came to the platform and said that he agreed that it was not necessary to use intensive care medicine to prolong every life, but allowing an infant to die was different from taking active steps to end the infant’s life. That led to further discussion, and so in the end we had a long and not entirely fruitless debate. Some of that audience, at least, went away better informed than they had been when they arrived.15

The events of the summer of 1989 have had continuing repercussions on German intellectual life. On the positive side, those who had sought to stifle the controversy over euthanasia soon found that, as so often happens, the attempt to suppress ideas only ensures that the ideas gain a wider audience. Germany’s leading liberal weekly newspaper, Die Zeit, published two articles that gave a fair account of the arguments for euthanasia, and also discussed the taboo that had prevented open discussion of the topic in Germany. For this courageous piece of journalism, Die Zeit also became the target of protests, with Franz Christoph, the leader of the “Cripples Movement,” chaining his wheelchair to the door of the newspaper’s editorial offices. The editors of Die Zeit then invited Christoph to take part in a tape-recorded discussion with the editors of the newspaper and one or two others about whether the paper was right to discuss the topic of euthanasia. Christoph accepted, and the transcript was published in a further extensive article. Predictably, as in Saarbrücken, what began as a conversation about whether or not euthanasia should be discussed very soon turned into a debate on euthanasia itself.

From this point the euthanasia debate was picked up by both German and Austrian television. The outcome was that instead of a few hundred people hearing my views at lectures in Marburg and Dortmund, several million read about them or listened to them on television. The Deutsche Ärzteblatt—the major German medical journal—published an article by Helga Kuhse entitled “Why the discussion of euthanasia is unavoidable in Germany too,” which led to an extensive debate in subsequent issues.16 In philosophical circles the discussion of applied ethics in general, and euthanasia in particular, is much livelier now than it was before 1989—as is indicated by the special issue of Analyse & Kritik to which I have already referred. In journals of special education, as well, ethical issues are now being discussed far more frequently than they were two years ago.

The protest also revived the flagging sales of the German edition of Practical Ethics. The book sold more copies in the year after June 1989 than it had in all the five years it had previously been available in Germany. Now everyone involved in the debate in Germany seems to be rushing to publish a book on euthanasia. With the exception of two books by Anstötz and Leist, which contain genuine ethical arguments, those published so far are of some interest for those wishing to study the thinking of Germans opposed to free speech, but not for any other reason.17 For the most part each of the books appears to have been written to a formula that goes something like this:

  1. Quote a few passages from Practical Ethics selected so as to distort the book’s meaning.
  2. Express horror that anyone can say such things.
  3. Make a sneering jibe at the idea that this could pass for philosophy.
  4. Draw a parallel between what has been quoted and what the Nazis thought or did.

But it is also essential to observe one negative aspect of the formula:

  1. Avoid discussing any of the following dangerous questions: Is human life to be preserved to the maximum extent possible? If not, in cases in which the patient cannot and never has been able to express a preference, how are decisions to discontinue treatment to be made, without an evaluation of the patient’s quality of life? What is the moral significance of the distinction between bringing about a patient’s death by withdrawing treatment necessary to prolong life and bringing it about by active intervention? Why is advocacy of euthanasia for severely disabled infants so much worse than advocacy of abortion on request that the same people can oppose the right even to discuss the former, while themselves advocating the latter?

The irony about the recent publications, of course, is that even those who are highly critical of my own position do, by publishing their books and articles, foster a climate of debate about the topic. Even Franz Christoph, despite chaining his wheelchair to the offices of Die Zeit because they published reports of my views on euthanasia, has now published his own book on the topic. At the outset he protests vigorously that his book is not a contribution to the debate about euthanasia, but a book against this debate; it is self-evident, though, that one cannot publish a book on whether or not to have a debate on euthanasia without stimulating thought among one’s readers and reviewers about the issue of euthanasia itself.18

The negative aspects of these events are, unfortunately, probably more weighty. Most threatening of all are the incidents described at the beginning of this essay, and the atmosphere of repression and intimidation that they have evoked. Anyone who offers a course based on Practical Ethics in Germany now risks the same protests and personal attacks that Professor Kliemt faced in Duisburg. One Berlin philosopher told me recently that it is not possible to offer a course in applied ethics in that city—whether or not it makes reference to my book—because such a course would be bound to be disrupted.

A sinister aspect of this atmosphere is a kind of self-censorship among German publishers. It has proven extraordinarily difficult to find a publisher to undertake a German edition of Should the Baby Live?, the updated and more comprehensive account of my views (and those of my coauthor Helga Kuhse) on the treatment of severely disabled newborn infants. In view of the current controversy, there seems no doubt that a German edition of the book would have good commercial prospects. Yet one after another, German publishers have declined to publish it, even after it had been recommended by editors whose advice they normally accept without hesitation.

For those interested in studying or teaching bioethics or applied ethics in Germany, the consequences are much more serious still. Because he had invited me to lecture at the University of Dortmund, Professor Christoph Anstötz became the target of a hostile campaign aimed at having him dismissed from his teaching duties. Petitions were circulated and letters written to the minister of science and research for the state of Nordrhein-Westfalen, in which Dortmund is situated. These letters were signed by both teachers and students in special education. Although Professor Anstötz has a tenured position from which it would scarcely be possible for him to be dismissed, the government took the complaints seriously enough to ask him to explain why he had invited me, and what implications he drew from my ethical position for his work in special education.

Throughout this campaign, the rector of the University of Dortmund and his office remained silent. The highest officers of the university took no action to indicate their concern that threats of protest had forced an academic lecture to be canceled; nor did they come to the defense of one of their professors when he was under attack for inviting a colleague to give a lecture on the campus of the university. That was typical of the reaction of German professors. There was no strong reaction among them on behalf of academic freedom. With a handful of exceptions, Anstötz’s colleagues in special education either joined the campaign against him, or remained silent. A number of philosophers signed declarations of support for the principle of free debate, and one of these was published in the Berlin newspaper taz.19 At Professor Meggle’s instigation, 180 members of the German Philosophical Association signed a similar declaration, but the association has since failed to publish the list of the signers, despite giving an undertaking to do so.

All this does not augur well for the future of rational discussion of controversial new ethical issues in Germany and Austria. Outside the German-speaking nations, study and discussion of bioethics is expanding rapidly, in response to the recognition of the need for ethical consideration of the many new issues raised by developments in medicine and the biological sciences. Other fields of applied ethics, such as the status of animals, questions of global justice and resource distribution, environmental ethics and business ethics, are also getting much attention. In Germany and Austria, however, it now takes real courage to do work in applied ethics, and even more courage to publish something that is likely to come under the hostile scrutiny of those who want to stop debate. Academics who do not have a permanent university position must fear not merely personal attack, but also the diminished opportunity to pursue an academic career. The events in Hamburg cast a cloud over the prospects of university posts opening up in these fields. If there are no posts to be obtained, graduate students will avoid working on questions of applied ethics, for there is no sense in studying matters that offer no prospect of employment. There is even a danger that in order to avoid controversy, analytic philosophy as a whole will suffer a setback. At the present time, a large number of new university positions are being created in the universities of the former German Democratic Republic. Philosophers interested in analytic philosophy are concerned that these positions may all go to philosophers working on less sensitive subjects, for example, to those who concentrate on historical studies, or to followers of Habermas who have generally kept quiet about these sensitive ethical issues and about the obstacles to debating them in Germany today.

Germans of course are still struggling to deal with their past, and the German past is one which comes close to defying rational understanding. There is, however, a peculiar tone of fanaticism about some sections of the German debate over euthanasia that goes beyond normal opposition to Nazism, and instead begins to seem like the very mentality that made Nazism possible. To see this attitude at work, let us look not at euthanasia, but at an issue that is, for the Germans, closely related to it and just as firmly taboo: the issue of eugenics. Because the Nazis practiced eugenics, anything in any way related to genetic engineering in Germany is now smeared with Nazi associations. This attack embraces the rejection of prenatal diagnosis, when followed by selective abortion of fetuses with Down’s syndrome, spina bifida, or other defects, and even leads to criticism of genetic counseling designed to avoid the conception of children with genetic defects. It has also led to the German parliament unanimously passing a law that prohibits all non-therapeutic experimentation on the human embryo. The British parliament, by contrast, recently passed by substantial majorities in both chambers a law that allows nontherapeutic embryo experimentation up to fourteen days after fertilization.

To understand how bizarre this situation is, readers in English-speaking countries must remind themselves that this opposition comes not, as it would in our countries, from right-wing conservative and religious groups, but from the left. Since women’s organizations are prominent among the opposition to anything that smacks of eugenics, and also are in the forefront of the movement to defend the right to abortion, the issue of prenatal diagnosis gives rise to an obvious problem in German feminist circles. The accepted solution seems to be that a woman should have the right to an abortion, but not to an abortion based on accurate information about the future life-prospects of the fetus she is carrying.20

The rationale for this view is, at least, consistent with the rationale for opposition to euthanasia: it is the idea that no one should ever judge one life to be less worth living than another. To accept prenatal diagnosis and selective abortion, or even to select genetic counseling aimed at avoiding the conception of infants with extreme genetic abnormalities, is seen as judging that some lives are less worth living than others. To this the more militant groups of disabled people take offense; it suggests, they maintain, that they should not have been allowed to come into existence, and thus denies their right to life.

This is, of course, a fallacy. It is one thing to hold that we may justifiably take steps to ensure that the children we bring into the world do not face appalling obstacles to living a minimally decent life, and a quite different thing to deny to a living person who wants to go on living the right to do just that. If the suggestion, on the other hand, is that whenever we seek to avoid having severely disabled children, we are improperly judging one kind of life to be worse than another, we can reply that such judgments are both necessary and proper. To argue otherwise would seem to suggest that if we break a leg, we should not get it mended, because in doing so we judge the lives of those with crippled legs to be less worth living than our own.21 For people to believe such a fallacious argument is bad enough; what is really frightening, however, is that people believe in it with such fanaticism that they are prepared to use force to suppress any attempt to discuss it.

If this is the case with attempts to discuss practices like genetic counseling and prenatal diagnosis, which are today very widely accepted in most developed countries, it is easy to imagine that the shadow of Nazism prevents any rational discussion of anything that relates to euthanasia. It avails little to point out that what the Nazis called “euthanasia” had nothing to do with compassion or concern for those who were killed, but was simply the murder of people considered unworthy of living from the racist viewpoint of the German Volk. Such distinctions are altogether too subtle for those who are convinced that they alone know what will prevent a revival of Nazi-like barbarism.

Can anything be done? In May this year, in Zurich, I had one of the most unpleasant experiences yet in this unhappy story; but it gave, at the same time, a glimmer of hope that there may be a remedy.

I was invited by the Zoological Institute of the University of Zurich to give a lecture on “Animal Rights.” On the following day, the philosophy department had organized a colloquium for twenty-five invited philosophers, theologians, special educationalists, zoologists, and other academics to discuss the implications for both humans and animals of an ethic that would reject the view that the boundary of our species marks a moral boundary of great intrinsic significance, and holds that nonhuman animals have no rights.

The lecture on animal rights did not take place. Before it began, a group of disabled people in wheelchairs, who had been admitted to the flat area at the front of the lecture theater, staged a brief protest in which they said that, while it was all the same to them whether or not I lectured on the topic of animal rights, they objected to the fact that the University of Zurich had invited such a notorious advocate of euthanasia to discuss ethical issues that also concerned the disabled. At the end of this protest, when I rose to speak, a section of the audience—perhaps a quarter or a third—began to chant: “Singer raus! Singer raus!” As I heard this chanted, in German, by people so lacking in respect for the tradition of reasoned debate that they were unwilling even to allow me to make a response to what had just been said about me, I had an overwhelming feeling that this was what it must have been like to attempt to reason against the rising tide of Nazism in the declining days of the Weimar Republic. The difference was that the chant would have been, not “Singer raus,” but “Juden raus.” An overhead projector was still functioning, and I began to write on it, to point out this parallel that I was feeling so strongly. At that point one of the protesters came up behind me and tore my glasses from my face, throwing them on the floor and breaking them.

My host wisely decided to abandon the lecture; there was nothing else that could be done. But from this distressing affair came one good sign; it was clear that the disabled people who had made the initial protest were distressed with what had happened afterward. Several said that they had not intended that the lecture should be disrupted; they had, in fact, prepared questions to ask during the discussion period that would have followed the lecture. Even while the chanting was going on, some attempted to begin a discussion with me; at which point some of the able-bodied demonstrators (presumably well aware of the way in which in Saarbrücken a discussion had broken through the initial hostility toward me) urgently remonstrated with them not to talk to me. The disabled, however, clearly had no power to do anything about the chanting.

As already noted, my views in no way threaten anyone who is, or ever has been, even minimally aware of the fact that he or she has a possible future life that could be threatened. But there are some who have a political interest in preventing this elementary fact from becoming known. These people are now playing on the anxieties of the disabled in order to use them as a political front for different purposes. In Zurich, for instance, prominent among the nondisabled people chanting “Singer raus” were the Autonomen, or “Autonomists,” a group that affects an anarchist style but disdains any interest in anarchist theory. For these nondisabled political groups, preventing Singer from speaking, no matter what the topic, has become an end in itself, a way of rallying the faithful and striking at the entire system in which rational debate takes place. Disabled people have nothing to gain, and much to lose, by allowing themselves to be used by such nihilistic groups. If they can be brought to see that their interests are better served by an open discussion with those whose views they oppose, it may be possible to begin a process in which both bioethicists and the disabled address the proper concerns of the other side, and move to a dialogue that is constructive rather than destructive.

Such a dialogue would be only a beginning. To heal the damage done to bioethics and applied ethics in Germany will take much longer. There is a real danger that the atmosphere of intimidation and intolerance which has spread from the issue of euthanasia to all of bioethics, and with the events in Hamburg, to applied ethics in general, will continue to broaden. It is essential that the minority that is actively opposing the free discussion of academic ideas be isolated. Here too, what happened in Zurich may serve as an example for other German-speaking countries to follow. In sharp contrast to the silence of the rector of the University of Dortmund, or the fatuous claim that “We didn’t know at all who that was” of the dean of medicine at the University of Vienna, Professor H. H. Schmid, rector of the University of Zurich, issued a statement expressing the university’s “outrage over this grave violation of academic freedom of speech.”22 The professors of the Zoological Institute and the dean of the Faculty of Science have also unequivocally condemned the disruption, and the major German-language newspapers in Zurich gave objective coverage to the events and to my views.23

Meanwhile Germans and Austrians, both in academic life and in the press, have shown themselves sadly lacking in the commitment exemplified by the celebrated utterance attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” No one has, as yet, been asked to risk death in order to defend my right to discuss euthanasia in Germany, but it is important that many more should be prepared to risk a little hostility from the minority that is trying to silence a debate on central ethical questions.

This Issue

August 15, 1991