Good from Evil

I was given an article by a student of mine following his one month elective rotation with me in which we spent some clinical time discussing bioethical issues. The May 2019 web article by Sharon Begley from Statnews.com had to do with an interesting medical dilemma first presented in 2016 by Dr. Susan Mackinnon from Washington University in St. Louis. I have briefly summarized Begley’s article in the first part of today’s blog and extended her point at the end.

Dr. Mackinnon had a patient who was having severe leg pain following multiple knee surgeries. Dr Mackinnon was providing the final surgical attempt to isolate the nerve presumably being compressed by scar tissue in hopes of surgically decompressing that nerve to permanently relieve the patient’s severe pain. If the surgery was not successful, the only other option at that point was to amputate the leg. During the surgery, she used an old anatomy book called The Pernkopf Topographic Anatomy of Man, which unambiguously has the best illustrations of nerves around the knee, and successfully located and decompressed the nerve in question and successfully avoided an amputation.

So, what was the dilemma?

As Begley points out in her article, it came to light in the mid-1980s that the illustrations used in the Pernkopf atlas were based in part on the bodies of people executed by the Nazis in the late 1930s. The moral dilemma for Dr. Mackinnon was therefore:

“…even now, the Pernkopf illustrations are unsurpassed in their accuracy and detail, especially their depiction of peripheral nerves…and although a few journal papers may have an equally good, single illustrations, finding the right paper takes time that Mackinnon did not have as she stood over her patient.”

Dr. Mackinnon had been given the Pernkopf atlas as a graduation gift in 1982 but the Nazi history behind the atlas was not known until the mid-to-late 1980s, the full history of which only became known to her after the surgery. Should she continue to use an atlas that contains illustrations of the bodies of people executed by the Nazis? If used, is there a duty to inform a current patient about the nature of the atlas? Can sufficient good be derived from the atlas given the unspeakable evil required to create it to permit its ongoing use?

She posed her dilemma to Rabbi Joseph Polak, the Chief Justice of the Rabbinical Court of Massachusetts, who consulted Prof. Michael Grodin of the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies at Boston University. Their opinion became known as the Vienna Protocol, due to the origins of the Pernkopf atlas. Their response may be found in this link, which I believe is better read in the full context of the Vienna Protocol than summarized by your humble blogger. For those of you who must read the opinion before reading the entire protocol, please follow the link and scroll to the 4th to last page at number 12 in section C entitled “The Protocol and Recommendations”.

The evil that created the Pernkopf atlas was the Nazi occupation of and executions that occurred in Austria during World War II. It is no longer occurring. No one in the present is suggesting that we resume executing people to gain more anatomic drawings to complete additional volumes of the atlas. Any good resulting from the current use of the atlas isn’t being offset by any ongoing evil of creating more atlas. The evil of the Pernkopf atlas is contained in the past and, in that sense, finite. Containing the evil seems to be a necessary step in obtaining good from that evil.

I mention this in closing as I believe there are current analogies of activities performed in the name of scientific good where we condone ongoing evil. Studying fertilized ova until sacrificing them on Day 14 (an evil) in the name of learning about human reproduction (a good) is one modern day example. In Vitro Fertilization done to obtain a healthy baby with genetic traits we want (a good) that results in the death(s) of other fertilized eggs we don’t want (an evil) is another. There are other examples we have discussed within this blog. I believe we need to contain and hopefully discontinue these and other practices if we want to claim the information we gain can honestly be called good.

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