The Bell in Hadamar

by Fred Ford

[13 April 2001]

There is a commemorative bell in the town of Hadamar, Germany. It was erected to honor the memory of those who died in the basement gas chamber of the institution there and at 5 other institutions in Germany. It was in these institutions that Germany's first gas chambers were built beginning in September of 1939. In these places, as many as 200,000 people with disabilities were gassed to death in the "Aktion T4" program in pursuit of the so-called "master race". This method of killing people with disabilities continued until August 23, 1941 when Hitler ordered it discontinued because of a public outcry and a legal challenge (although secretly, many more people continued to be killed by lethal injection). This program demonstrated an efficient means of killing and marked the beginning of the Holocaust.

This history, despite being well documented, is largely unknown. Most people do not know that the first gas chambers were built and used to kill people with disabilities. Most of us are unaware of the propaganda program which led many people to believe that the killing of people with disabilities was a kind and courageous thing to do. Yet it is a history which... must be well understood by our movement and by our society..., if we are to learn its lessons and prevent its recurrence—on any scale.

Many have suggested that the "moral dilemmas" presented by cases such as the murder of Tracy Latimer are new ones. In fact, when Robert Latimer fashioned his own gas chamber in his pickup truck in Wilkie, Saskatchewan, he created a microcosm of the Aktion T4 program once again. Latimer committed exactly the same act, gave precisely the same justification, and placed the same dilemma before the public once again. Far from being an issue unique to the 1990's, this is the same moral issue raised in Hadamar and judged in Nuremburg. The only difference is that Tracy was killed by her own father.

Our demonization of those involved in carrying out the Holocaust has sometimes prevented us from examining what led these entirely human beings to do what they did. By portraying the people who carried out this program as monstrous, evil and most importantly, unlike ourselves, we have diminished our ability to recognize the same scenario when we see it played out before us, yet again.

The majority of those who designed and implemented the T4 program were not much different from Canadians then and now. They were doctors, nurses, and caregivers from the institutions. Most were probably loving parents and reasonable people who did what they thought was right. They were told and believed that they were "delivering those who could not be cured". They were ending the pain and suffering of those who had been kept alive through medical interventions which were "against the laws of nature". They were doing the merciful thing. Sound familiar?

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Latimer story is the way in which journalists, experts and supporters of Latimer have objectified and dehumanized Tracy. The media, for the most part, have been unable or unwilling to portray Tracy in any way that conveys who she was as a person. Invariably, Tracy is described in terms of her disabilities and her pain. She was never described as a 12 year old student who was attending school every day (which she was). We learned nothing of her personality, her gifts or her relationships. She was always the "severely disabled" child who had a "mental age of 3 months" and "never learned to..." (and so on). Globe and Mail reporter Margaret Wente carelessly refers to "the mercy killing of his horribly disabled daughter"—accepting at face value the father's justification for his actions and describing Tracy in a grossly offensive and prejudicial way.

Reporters accepted and repeated without question, the Latimers' assertion that Tracy was in "constant, unremitting pain" when there was no evidence that Tracy's condition was different than that of most people who have similar disabilities (and many people do). Many people with severe cerebral palsy like Tracy's (too much muscle tone) certainly do experience times of extreme pain, but there are also many treatment options (death not among them) and the potential for a life as rich as anyone's.

Some would have us believe that Tracy's birth was the real crime—that it is an offense to humanity that someone like Tracy was ever born. UBC Professor Earl Winkler, a leading Canadian ethicist quoted in the Vancouver Sun, suggests that the current dilemma might have been avoided by "allowing" Tracy to die at birth—in other words, killing Tracy by witholding treatment to her as a newborn—as though this would have been an ethical thing to do! Also, like so many observers, even an expert like Winkler confuses Tracy's murder with the euthanasia/assisted suicide debate. He says "you had a 12 year old who couldn't decide for herself", yet there is no reason to presume that Tracy ever considered suicide. Is this scholarly analysis or merely another pessimistic view of disability masquerading as expert insight? Tracy did not have a terminal illness, she had cerebral palsy.

Not so long ago, in 1972, another leading ethicist, Joseph Fletcher, Professor of Medical Ethics at the University of Virginia, proposed that the "personhood" of an individual with an IQ of under 40 was "questionable", and that those with IQ's under 20 are not persons at all and should be classified as "objects".

I have had the privilege of being involved in the lives of many people with disabilities like Tracy's... I have known these people as individuals, and shared both difficult and happy times with them. Many of these people have helped me to know the meaning of words like kindness, mercy, courage and love.

Now I hear these words being used to describe the man who robbed Tracy of her life. Though some Latimer defenders have asserted that "this is not a disability issue", someone, please tell me, what, other than prejudice about disability could cause people to turn morality upside down, to confuse the perpetrator with the victim, proclaiming his virtues, while ignoring her humanity?

The vision we share of an inclusive community could vaporize in an instant if we fail to rise to the challenges presented by the Latimer case. Recent news reports indicate that Latimer has received over sixty thousand dollars from supporters for his appeal, scheduled for early this year. Many have been duped by the same arguments which gave rise to the large-scale, legally sanctioned killing of people with disabilities more than 50 years ago.

The bell at Hadamar is ringing. Above the din of the media hype yet to come, we must ensure that it is heard by our friends, our neighbors, our community leaders, our politicians and the judiciary. We must promote awareness of the history, the people and the spirit which that bell symbolizes. We must ensure that this tragic lesson of history is learned once and for all.

(Bell at Hadamar appeared in BCACL Community Living News 19 January 1995)