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What Is the Nuremberg Code?

Photo of Nazi concentration camp
The Nuremberg Code is a set of ethical principles for human experimentation.

The Nuremberg Code emerged in the wake of the Second World War in response to the horrific medical practices that were carried out on prisoners in concentration camps throughout the Third Reich.

What is the Nuremberg Code?

The Nuremberg Code is a set of 10 ethical research principles for human experimentation. These guidelines were established by the U.S. v Brandt case at Nuremberg, where the first international war crimes tribunal in history was held after World War II.

War Crimes

After the Second World War, a series of trials were held in Nuremberg over the inhumane treatment of prisoners in concentration camps during the war. It was the defense’s argument in those trials that the activities that took place throughout World War II were a legal form of human-based experimentation. As a result, much of the trial focused on the determination of what exactly constitutes ethical human experimentation.

Concentration camp beds
Concentration camp prisoners faced horrendous conditions during WWII.

In the case of United States of America v. Karl Brandt, the court established ethical medical research principles. Ultimately, the Nuremberg Code became an integral part of the verdict in the case. And although it was created specifically concerning the atrocities that took place during World War II, it has since become a significant part of all forms of experimentation on human beings.

A Guideline for Human-Based Experiments

Racial hygiene played an important role in German politics during the Second World War. The experimentation on human beings began in the 1920s. Several prominent physicians in Nazi Germany who supported the implementation of racial hygiene had been accused of a plethora of unethical practices related to experimentation and human subjects research.

But, to create the perfect Aryan race, the German government promoted human-based medical experimentation. Eventually, proponents of racial hygiene would merge with the growing National Socialism with the ultimate goal of using these experiments by Nazi doctors to purify the race. This was a core concept of the ideology supported by the Nationalists.

Swastika flags
Racial purity was a core tenet of the National Socialist program in Germany.

Soon, scientists and physicians from all over Germany fell in line with the ideological beliefs and aided the Nationalists by establishing a Physician’s League. Their goal was to unify and purify the entire medical community within Germany and eventually the world.

Yet, despite all the efforts of the Nationalists to racially cleanse the populace and create the perfect Aryan nation, there was still a growing criticism within the community. Members of both the medical community and the community at large began making claims that the physicians in the League were conducting experiments that had no actual public health therapeutic purpose. 

In response to criticism, the German government issued guidelines for human-based experiments, which specifically distinguished the difference between what can be considered a therapeutic purpose.

The Nuremberg Trials

The original German guidelines on human-based experiments were later nullified under the Nazi regime. To the Nazis, achieving the perfect Aryan race required them to continue with human-based medical experimentation and racial cleansing. This resulted in the deaths of untold persons of Jewish descent at camps controlled by the Nazis throughout Europe.

On May 2, 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union, and Great Britain initiated a series of trials in Nuremberg to hold various members of the controlling Nazi party liable for war crimes committed throughout the Second World War. The trials began in November of the same year.

Although composed of several trials, the one that established the Nuremberg Code was the United States of America v. Karl Brandt. This particular trial was held to indict the physicians who acted on behalf of Nazi Germany. Known by many as the Doctors’ Trial, USA versus Brandt focused on the sterilization of more than 3.5 million German citizens throughout the conflict.

In their defense, the physicians argued that the techniques they had been employing were no different from the human-based experiments conducted before World War II. Under German law, there was no differentiation between what was considered illegal and what was considered legal. As a result, Dr. Leo Alexander and Dr. Andrew Ivy submitted a proposal that outlined six specific points that may be considered when determining whether the human-based experimentation was legitimate.

In its decision, the court included not only the six points presented by Dr. Leo Alexander and Dr. Andrew Ivy but expanded them to ten points. These ten points that formed an integral part of the August 20, 1947 decision became known as the Nuremberg Code. Today, this Code plays an important role in any form of experimentation where human beings are involved.

The Ten Points

In all, the Nuremberg Code consists of 10 specific points. The most important of these points is that any human subject to the experimentation must give their consent voluntarily. The subject of the experiment should be of legal age and can exercise his or her power of choice freely. 

Likewise, any experiment where a human being is involved should only be conducted if the expected outcome of the experiment is for the betterment of society. It must be noted that human-based trials and experimentation should be used as a last resort, and only after other methods of study cannot be attained in nature.

Before any human-based experiments may be conducted, they must be based upon results obtained through animal experimentation. In other words, assuming there are no other means of carrying out a particular study in nature, it must be first conducted on animals before it may be conducted on human beings.

More importantly, however, human-based experiments must be done in a manner to prevent any unnecessary pain or suffering. Although it may not be possible to eliminate all physical or emotional pain and suffering associated with an experiment, every effort must be taken to limit the human subject’s exposure.

It is also important to remember that no human-based experiment should be conducted if there is a sufficient reason to believe that it may result in a disabling injury or even death. If there is a reasonable belief that an experiment may result in a disabling injury or even death, then only physicians may serve as subjects in the experiment. 

Likewise, physicians should ensure that all preparations necessary to reduce the risk of serious injury or death are conducted.

Every experiment should have some form of humanitarian purpose. As a result, the amount of risk that a scientist takes should never exceed the importance of the problem that is expected to be resolved by the experiment. They should only be conducted by those who have sufficient qualifications related to the field of scientific study that the experiment is engaged in.

In the end, all human-based experiments should be designed to allow the subject to end the experiment of his or her own free will at any point in the experiment. Likewise, the scientist experimenting must also be willing to terminate it at any stage if he or she believes that continuation may result in a disabling injury or death.

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