By Jonathan D. Moreno, Judit Sándor, Ulf Schmidt.
Over the last 80 years, a series of critical events has led to reconsideration of the basic premises of medical ethics. One of these events was the recognition of horrific medical experiments performed by German medical scientists in World War II concentration camps, resulting in intensified emphasis on a consent requirement, later understood as grounded in the bioethical principle of respect for autonomy, as well as on the moral accountability of the experimenter. Another important event that is forcing a reconsideration of respect for autonomy in medicine and health care is the COVID-19 pandemic. But this time the matter pulls in a different direction, from respect for autonomy to social responsibility, represented in problems as disparate as the wearing of masks, vaccination requirements, and equity in vaccine access and distribution. How can modern bioethics, in part a creature of the response to Nazi crimes, accommodate the intensified sensitivity about public health needs that has accompanied the shock of the pandemic? The responses of European medical ethics to the Nazi era provide tools for bioethics as it faces the challenge now at hand. This article uses historical context from postwar Europe to argue that, in light of the pandemic experience, respect for autonomy must systematically incorporate a commitment to social responsibility.