The ethics and politics of force-feeding terror suspects in West German prisons

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8 Citations (Scopus)


In February 1981, imprisoned members of the Red Army Faction launched a collective hunger strike that would eventually claim two lives. Prisoner Sigurd Debus famously died in April, and, in less sensational circumstances, prison physician Volker Leschhorn took his own life in January 1982. Leschhorn had become trapped between the competing interests at play during a hunger strike. At its core, the treatment of striking prisoners pits a prisoner's right to refuse food against a state's duty to protect that prisoner's life. In West Germany the neatness of this ethical contest was complicated, however, by a discursive layering that made force-feeding the locus for a broader conflict. This paper tracks the complex pressures that shaped West Germany's response to self-starvation in the 1970s and 1980s. It places the ethical, legal and political debates in their domestic and international contexts, and draws out the gap between theoretical debate and practical implementation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)481-499
Number of pages19
JournalSocial History of Medicine
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2012


  • Force-feeding
  • Medical ethics
  • Political hunger strike
  • Prison
  • Red Army Faction

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • History


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