The Evolution of Medical Ethics

The Nuremberg Code

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The Nuremberg Trial

In 1946, 23 doctors were tried for the medical experiments and related crimes committed during the Holocaust.

The tribunal focused on the criminal nature of these doctors, but also struggled with the broad ethical concerns of medical research. The only other ethical doctrine, The Hippocratic Oath, did not account for research ethics.

The defendants claimed that they were working within the ethical bounds set forth by the Hippocratic oath, in the sense that they were seeking medical knowledge for the benefit of human kind. They had adopted a collectivist attitude- where medical orders were given on behalf of a fictitious collective. The defendants believed that the oath of Hippocrates dealt with illnesses afflicting whole populations, and they were seeking the solution to these problems. In essence, they were treating the population as a whole.

However, the medical experiments were clearly horrific and unjustified and were in violation of human rights, and thus, a new code was developed in order to account for medical experimentation and research ethics. The testimonies from the trial were used in order to establish this new system of codes: the Nuremberg Code.

At the end of the trial, 8 of the doctors were acquitted, 7 were charged with death, 5 were sentenced to life in prison, and 4 were charged for 10-20 years in prison. Only one doctor sentenced to prison served for the allotted time.