Bioethics Blogs

Is privacy to blame for the Germanwings tragedy?

Since it was revealed that Andreas Lubitz—the co-pilot thought to be responsible for voluntarily crashing Germanwings Flight 9525 and killing 149 people—suffered from depression, a debate has ensued over whether privacy laws regarding medical records in Germany should be less strict when it comes to professions that carry special responsibilities.

The belief that Germany’s privacy laws are to blame for the tragedy has been voiced repeatedly (explicitly and implicitly) in numerous newspapers and magazines. The Times, for example, published an article entitled “German obsession with privacy let killer pilot fly.” Similarly, Time published an article entitled “German Privacy Laws Let Pilot ‘Hide’ His Illness from Employers.” Dirk Fischer, German lawmaker and transport spokesman for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has called for airlines to have mandatory access to pilots’ medical records. He has told the Reinische Post newspaper that pilots’ employment contracts should oblige them to see doctors who are nominated by the airline and who have the duty to inform the federal aviation authorities and the airline of relevant issues regarding pilots’ health.

Frank Ulrich Montgomery, president of the German Medical Association (BÄK), disagrees. He pointed out that, under current laws, aviation doctors are relieved of their duties of confidentiality if they think a pilot could put other people’s lives at risk. Under German law, there are two exceptions that allow for a breach of doctor-patient confidentiality: when it is believed a patient is planning to commit a serious crime, and when it is believed that the patient suffers from an epidemic disease. If Lubitz’s doctor did not alert Germanwings, it must have been because he or she did not believe Lubitz to be a threat.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.