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Massachusetts Medical Society




Torture is a particularly horrible crime, and any participation of physicians in torture has always been difficult to comprehend. As General Telford Taylor explained to the American judges at the trial of the Nazi doctors in Nuremberg, Germany (called the “Doctors' Trial”), “To kill, to maim, and to torture is criminal under all modern systems of law . . . yet these [physician] defendants, all of whom were fully able to comprehend the nature of their acts . . . are responsible for wholesale murder and unspeakably cruel tortures.” Taylor told the judges that it was the obligation of the United States “to all peoples of the world to show why and how these things happened,” with the goal of trying to prevent a repetition in the future. The Nazi doctors defended themselves primarily by arguing that they were engaged in necessary wartime medical research and were following the orders of their superiors. These defenses were rejected because they are at odds with the Nuremberg Principles, articulated a year earlier, at the conclusion of the multinational war crimes trial in 1946, that there are crimes against humanity (such as torture), that individuals can be held to be criminally responsible for committing them, and that obeying orders is no defense.


From The New England Journal of Medicine, George J. Annas, Unspeakably Cruel: Torture, Medical Ethics, and the Law, Volume 352, Page 2127 Copyright ©(2005) Massachusetts Medical Society. Reprinted with permission.

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