The Irish Catholic Bishops love to talk about the Dignity of Life…Respect for a person as merely being a human being they say is “Dignity”, Dignity is our inherent value and worth as human beings, they preach daily, everyone is born with Dignity. Where was the Dignity of Life ethos the Irish Catholic Church shout about regularly, but never in the Religious Institutions, for women and children, which the Catholic Religious Orders ran in Ireland. Part of the baffling puzzle created by the Irish Catholic Church atrocities is how trained medical and nursing professionals had allowed what happened to vulnerable women and their children, and more disturbing still the medical establishment actively participated. The very same Doctors and Nurses, dedicated to caring for other human beings, looked on as vulnerable women and their children those entrusted to their care were mistreated and experimented on and even killed, in the Irish Catholic Church run Institutions. And even worse, some of those same medical professionals, participated in unethical and criminal activities, encouraged by the Irish Catholic Church, how could they have done this?
The search for an answer must delve into the underlying superstitious beliefs commonly held at that time, and to this very day. This investigation is crucial because if those mythical beliefs prevail again we must wonder whether such unconscionable behaviour will likely follow in their path. The origins of the Irish Catholic Church atrocities do not lie in the Irish Religious run Institutions set up by a totalitarian Irish Catholic Church. They were rooted in fabled beliefs promoted by corrupted social philosophies and practices that began in the highest levels of the Irish Catholic Church. The Irish Catholic Church ethics often focuses on how we decide what is ethical in a particular case or on a certain issue. Ethics must also examine where the underlying beliefs that impact those decisions come from. The Irish Catholic Church programs of involuntary euthanasia, forced sterilisation, eugenics and human drug experimentation were strongly influenced by views about human dignity current at that time and current to this very day.
These offensive views sprouted by the Irish Catholic Church, had been formed and created in a deeply superstitious Ireland in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The Irish Catholic Church was saying nothing that had not been repeatedly stated in academic and popular circles in high Anglo Irish life.
The Irish Catholic Church helped lead to the rejection of previously dominant ideas like the inherent value and dignity of all human life. Other beliefs were promoted and accepted, notions like lives unworthy to live, unwed women for example were considered unfit to reproduce, and the elimination of these unfit women and their children was a policy of the Irish Catholic Church. The Irish Catholic Church had the absolute responsibility of declaring as unfit for reproductive purposes anyone who is obviously ill or genetically unsound and must carry through with this responsibility ruthlessly without respect to understanding or lack of understanding on the part of anyone. One of the most influential books at the time and which was passed around by the most powerful in both Irish political circles and high Catholic Church officials was a book, originally written in German by Binding and Hoche, called "Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Living” written together with the psychiatrist Alfred Hoche and German Jurist, Karl Binding, what many people don’t know about the book is it was used by the Nazis to justify their Euthanasia Program. Both Binding and Hoche, were respected academics from medicine and law at the time in the 1920s. The pair asked, "Is there human life which has so utterly forfeited its claim to worth that its continuation has forever lost all value both for the bearer of that life and for society?" Their answer, and that of many scientists and medical academics, and the Roman Catholic Church was an unequivocal 'Yes.'
In 1920. Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche publish their book “Die Freigabe der Vernichtung Lebensunwerten Lebens”;- the title translates to "Permission to Destroy Life Devoid of Value" or "Permitting the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life." The book was composed of two parts. Binding's part addressed the legal relationship between suicide and euthanasia, and then extended it to killing the mentally ill. Hoche's part addressed the relationship between doctors and patients. He suggested that killing a patient was justifiable when it led to other lives being saved - particularly when the patient in question was, in his view, of no value to themselves or society. Many leading Irish Catholic Church Officials believed this at the time, the Irish Catholic Church depicted unwed mothers and their children negatively, and advocated infanticide for disabled infants of unwed mothers.
Binding and Hoche were not alone when they proclaimed, (sadly this was the private view of many Irish Catholic Church Officials)- “There was a time, now considered barbaric, in which eliminating those who were born unfit for life, or who later became so, was taken for granted. Then came the phase, continuing into the present, in which, finally, preserving every existence, no matter how worthless, stood as the highest moral value. A new age will arrive – operating with a higher morality and with great sacrifice – which will actually give up the requirements of an exaggerated humanism and overvaluation of mere existence" The "phase" to which they referred was the Christian era. Proponents of this "new age" frequently included attacks on this Western ethic because of its care and compassion for the weak and the sick. The idea that all human life had inherent dignity was replaced with the view that some human lives were not worth living and should be eliminated.
I accept, any attempt to draw connections between the Nazi Holocaust and contemporary bioethical debate must be done carefully. Too often connections are made that are tenuous at best, and completely wrong at worst. Some claim it is impossible to draw any meaningful lessons from what was basically an "irrational lust for murder”. Any mention of the Holocaust can raise so many emotions that rational discussion becomes difficult. Some are offended that anything today could be compared to the Holocaust since it is viewed as the icon of absolute evil. Yet similarities do exist between some of the practices carried out by the Nazis and practices carried out by the Irish Catholic Church run Religious Institutions, which is currently being debated. Some emphasise these similarities while others focus on the differences to avoid any connection. The claim is often made that "then is not now, and there is not here, and they are not us". The assumption is that we could never do what they did, but we did just do that, here in Ireland, and the proof is now been uncovered, painfully in the mass graves, pits, and septic tanks in the many Irish Religious run Institutions, scattered up and down this green land of Ireland.
Owen Felix O'Neill
Owen Felix O'Neill
Author of Child Laundering Secrets, 2017