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Friday, January 30, 2015

The ugly history of eugenics: the state control of reproduction

At the collective level, sexuality carries particular symbolic importance, since it is through reproductive sexuality that the nation is biologically reproduced, which turns it into a concern of the state. [...] States have traditionally been preoccupied with the size and quality of their populations, concerns that have often reflected anxieties about the nation and its identity. Worries about decline in size or quality of the national population, [...] or about whether immigrants are having more children than 'native' citizens have been recurrent items on national policy agendas. State concern with reproductive sexuality was particularly central to Western experiments with eugenics.
[...] The 'science' of eugenics thus emerged during the second half of the 19th century, with the aim of assisting nation states in implementing social policies which would improve the quality of the national 'breed'. In opposition to the laissez-faire attitude of political liberalism, eugenicists advocated active social engineering.
[...] Eugenicists called for scientifically founded state intervention to prevent further degeneration of the diseased national body. The emerging welfare state added an additional motive to that of preventing degeneracy: limiting public expenditure.
[...] Eugenics offered the hope of a scientifically grounded elimination of all sorts of social ills and disorderly conduct, through policies that would carefully regulate the reproductive sexuality of the population. Other eugenic policies included education programmes, non-voluntary incarceration in psychiatric clinics, removal of children from parental homes, prohibition to marry, as well as measures that specifically targeted vagrants, 'gypsies', and, more generally, socially deviant groups such as unmarried mothers, 'sexual deviants', or people with physical or mental impairments. In Great Britain, eugenic preoccupations were clearly intertwined with the demands of the colonial empire, and much anxiety focused on the supposedly degenerative characteristics of the colonized, racial 'others' and the perils of interracial reproduction. However, despite widespread support for eugenics among leading intellectuals, the strong influence of liberalism in the UK, in particular the distrust of state intervention in private life, put a brake upon the translation of eugenic ideas into actual policy practice, at least at a national level.
[...] In [Auguste Forel's] view, it was through selective, scientifically informed procreation that the boundaries around the national order were to be established and maintained. It was crucial, he argued, to teach young people about the consequences of having sexual relations with 'inferior' partners [...].
[...] In 1912, Switzerland prohibited marriage for the 'mentally deficient' and the 'legally irresponsible'. [...] Worldwide, the first eugenic sterilization law was introduced in Indiana in 1907, and by the 1930s almost two-thirds of US states had similar legislation targeting, in particular, institutionalized individuals such as criminals and those labelled 'mentally ill'.
[...] In the case of Switzerland, collective anxieties centered on the various social categories that were seen to constitute hereditary 'threats' to the Swiss nation: criminals, prostitutes, alcoholics, 'immoral' citizens (in particular unmarried mothers), the mentally ill, the physically disabled, haemophiliacs, people with tuberculosis, drug addicts, Jews, 'gypsies', and vagrants. [...] The 'mentally ill' were a particularly loose category which could include vagrants, people of 'weak morals', delinquents, and unmarried mothers [...]. Boundaries between medical diagnosis and moral values were, at best, fluid in eugenic discourse, and they completely dissolved in concepts such as 'moral feeble-mindedness'. [...] Forel perceived this task to be all the more urgent as he considered these sexualized 'others' and sexual 'perverts' - as well as women in general - as 'more sexual', and thus representing a particular reproductive threat.
[...] Eugenic technologies such as sterilization without consent and marriage interdiction were combined with other measures such as eugenic education, sex education, and marriage advice. [...] The widescale social and political experiments with eugenics illustrate the concern of the state with the reproductive sexuality of its citizens [...] Politics around eugenics and [HIV] illustrates the complex intersections of sexuality with hierarchies around gender and 'race', and its connections to the notions of individual and collective 'purity'.
- Véronique Mottier, Sexuality: A Very Short Introduction

Think about this the next time someone says consanguinamory should be illegal because we need to ensure they don't have "unhealthy" children (which is only pseudo-scientific anyway), or when they say that having all of these "inbred" children will be a drain on welfare, or when they say that people need to marry "better" partners. Controlling reproduction is one of the ultimate ways the majority can use the state to forcibly shape the next generation at the expense of minorities.

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