There's some good news and some bad news for 92-year old Dr Hans-Joachim Sewering. The good news is that he has just been awarded a medal for "unequalled services in the cause of the independence of the medical profession" by the German Federation of Internal Medicine (BDI). The bad news is that Der Spiegel magazine has not forgotten what it published 30 years ago about Dr Sewering: documents testifying that under the Nazis he had sent children with disabilities to a facility where they were killed as part of a systematic programme of exterminating the mentally and physically handicapped.
The BDI this week refused to respond to Spiegel's renewed claims about Dr Sewering, who now lives in comfortable retirement in the town of, er, Dachau. Dr Sewering continues to insist that he did not cooperate with the Nazis' programme of compulsory eugenic euthanasia. He admits that he was an active member of the SS, but claims that his membership of Hitler's most ruthless paramilitary wing was purely for "social reasons" – the sing-songs, the dressing-up, that sort of thing.
It wasn't necessary to be an enthusiastic Nazi to have some sympathy for the objectives of the campaign to rid Germany of "lebensunwertes Leben" – lives unworthy of living. Hitler had simply taken to a foully logical conclusion the views of then-fashionable eugenicists: after all, Winston Churchill, when Home Secretary in Asquith's Liberal Cabinet in 1910, proclaimed that "the unnatural growth of the feeble-minded and insane classes is a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate. The source from which this stain of madness is fed should be cut off and sealed up before another year has passed."
Churchill, of course, was proposing compulsory sterilisation of what he termed "the feeble-minded", not their extermination. Well, that was almost a hundred years ago, people say, whenever his remarks are exhumed. Yet such attitudes survived long after the Nazis' eugenically-inspired crimes against humanity were revealed – and in the most unlikely countries: it was not until 1976 that Sweden abolished laws promoting the sterilisation of women for openly eugenic reasons.
Churchill was unsuccessful in his attempt to introduce such legislation in the UK, which is a cause for some national self-congratulation; but we should not delude ourselves into believing that our legal system, even today, is entirely free from eugenic prejudice. Remnants of it survive in our abortion laws.
Last week the House of Commons agonised over the legal time limits for abortion, in no fewer than 145 speeches on amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. Eventually Members of Parliament voted to retain the 24-week limit for legal abortions – the moment when the unborn child is thought to be viable outside the mother's womb.
This was not altogether surprising. When sailing in such turbulent moral waters, it is understandable that most MPs would grab at the rail of "viability"; otherwise there is little to stop the conscientious legislator from being tossed from one side of the boat – any abortion is the unconscionable ending of another's life – to the other: no constraint of any sort should be placed on a woman's "right to choose", right up to the moment when the umbilical cord is cut, whenever that happens to be.
In effect, MPs decided that up to 24 weeks the unborn child has no rights at all – but after that moment its rights are absolute, superseding any wishes the mother might have to terminate the pregnancy. It's a bit weird, if you think about it, but that's the logic of Parliament's decision.
Read it all here.