Citizens’ ‘eugenic duties’
The eminent Swiss sexologist and socialist reformer Auguste Forel (1848-1931), Member of the Advisory Board of the International Federation of Eugenic Organisations and Honorary President of the World League of Sexual Reform in 1930, thus presented the construction of a social and national order based on the scientific management of reproduction by the welfare state as a moral duty to the future national community:
The regulation of procreation through appropriate means is a moral task. It is necessary for the hygiene of our race. Only this, combined with the elimination of narcotic poisons, will be able to block the increasing degeneration of our race, and bring us a better future.
We owe this to the progress, happiness and health of the future generations, for whose quality we are responsible.
Forel’s view that the social order was based on hereditary dispositions and was under threat was combined with a traditional social-democratic belief in the redeeming powers of education. While ‘only a healthy selection of the race’ could
improve the biological stock of the nation, this should be combined with active education campaigns based on science and reason:
Let Science enlighten our sexual life freely and openly; then, the hypocrisy of normal people will cease, and that of abnormal people can be recognized in time and damage be prevented.
Given the importance of sexual selection for the regulation of procreation, Forel strongly promoted policies of sexual education. In his 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, and about the corresponding necessity of gathering information on the hereditary background of potential spouses. ‘Each fiancee has the right and, in the interest of the future children, the holy duty,’ Forel wrote, ‘to know the sexual antecedents of their future spouse.’
In 1912, Switzerland prohibited marriage for the ‘mentally deficient’ and the ‘legally irresponsible’. This made it the first European country to introduce a prohibitive marriage law based on eugenic rationale to prevent the reproduction of ‘mental deficiencies’. 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’. The notorious 1927 Buck vs Bell decision by the Supreme Court allowed the State of Virginia to sterilize a young single mother considered ‘feeble-minded’, who had been institutionalized to hide the fact that she had become pregnant from incest against her will, on the grounds that:
It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or letting them starve for their
imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind… three generations of imbeciles is enough.
In 1928, the Swiss canton of Vaud, influenced by Forel’s ideas, adopted the first eugenic sterilization law in Europe. They were followed by Denmark in 1929, Germany in 1933, Sweden and Norway in 1934, and Finland in 1935. In the case of Switzerland, collective anxieties centred 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. It should be noted that the distinctions between labels such as sexual promiscuity, alcoholism, unsteadiness, dissoluteness, or ‘squandermania’ (a propensity for reckless spending) were often rather hazy. The ‘mentally ill’ were a particularly loose category which could include vagrants, people of ‘weak morals’, delinquents, and unmarried mothers (who were considered morally defective since they had clearly had sex outside of wedlock). 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’. Eugenicists such as Forel constantly called for the ‘artificial sterilization’ of the above-mentioned ‘degenerate’ categories of the population by the state, as a rational measure to prevent their reproduction. 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 to the nation.
Reflecting the eugenicist focus on female bodies as the reproducers of the nation, the sterilization of ‘inferior’ categories of the population was a strongly gendered practice. An early evaluation of the application of the Vaud law carried out in 1944 reported that nine out of ten eugenic sterilizations were carried
out on women. Similarly, data from Zurich show that from 1929 to 1931, eugenic sterilizations were carried out on 480 women (in conjunction with abortion) and 15 men. Sterilization was also a heavily gendered practice in other countries: over 90% of the Swedish sterilizations were carried out on women.
The majority of legal sterilizations in the canton of Vaud – similar to the Swedish context – were applied to young, female social deviants, that is women who were deemed ‘maladapted’, living in poor conditions, mostly unmarried, and judged to have ‘low intelligence’. The policing of respectable female sexuality appears to have been a central motive, since ‘loose morals’, ‘uninhibited’ female sexuality, or ‘nymphomania’, were frequently used as arguments for forced sterilization. In Zurich in the 1920s, for instance, prostitutes could legally be referred to psychiatric care when arrested. In a context in which ‘feeble-mindedness’ was considered to be more easily inherited by women than by men and prostitutes were considered to be particularly prone to pathologies, they were sometimes pressured into sterilizations. Sigwart Frank and Simon Jichlinksi, two psychiatrists who reported on sterilization practices in Switzerland in the 1920s and 1940s, provide extensive case stories exemplifying linkages between sexual transgressions and sterilizations. In 1931, the Directorate of the Poor Relief in Bern, the Swiss capital, issued a directive condemning the widespread practice of women’s referrals for sterilization by welfare agencies and specifying that unmarried women, for instance, should only be sterilized ‘if they show clear signs of physical or mental deficiency. [Sterilization] should henceforth not be carried out only because of sexual licentiousness if that person is otherwise physically and mentally normal.’
Sterilization could be applied against the consent of the person involved if she had been labelled as mentally defective. In other cases, methods for obtaining ‘consent’ included threatening withdrawal of welfare support or referral to a workhouse, or by
granting permission to abort only on condition of simultaneous ‘voluntary’ sterilization.
Female bodies were a particular source of eugenic anxiety, as indicated by the gender imbalance in the removal of reproductive capacities. Reflecting traditional associations of reproduction with the female body, women were also seen as particularly important targets for the eugenic education and state regulation that eugenicists called for. As the sociologist Nira Yuval-Davis has pointed out, ideas about the ‘purity of the race’ tend to be crucially intertwined with the regulation of female sexuality. The prominent Swiss physician Imboden-Kaiser thus advocated an education programme that would instil in mothers a ‘sense of reproductive responsibility’, further developing Forel’s principle of rational sexuality, while also calling for obligatory medical examinations and ‘marriage ability attestations’.
While sterilization policies were the most extreme form of eugenic regulation of reproductive sexuality by the welfare state, these practices were complemented by ‘preventative’ education policies. The emphasis Forel and other campaigners placed on the necessity of eugenicist sexual education and marriage advice paved the way for the entrance of eugenics into the education curriculum. For example, an information brochure was produced and distributed in Swiss schools and officers’ associations in 1939. The brochure educated Swiss youth about the dangers of reproducing with degenerate others, and pointed out their patriotic duty to the national collective. Youths were thus encouraged to:
Choose your spouse from a physically and morally healthy, mentally
superior family! You owe this to your offspring and to the Nation.
A Central Agency for Marriage and Sex Advice was set up by social-democrat welfare reformers in Zurich in 1932 – followed later by other Swiss cities – and organized exhibitions,
9. Eugenic marriage counselling in the US during the 1930s
presentations, and conferences on themes such as ‘hereditary responsibility’, ‘psychiatric-eugenic advice on marital candidates’ (1930s), and ‘prevention of hereditarily diseased offspring’ (1949). Sex and marital advice also constituted an area of political action for feminist social reformers who subscribed to the need for a ‘less degenerate’ future generation.
The notorious Swiss Kinder der Landstrasse (‘Children of the Country Lanes’) programme, a government-approved programme that aimed to eliminate vagrancy, had been set up by the federal child agency Pro Juventute and ran from 1926 to 1973.
Its explicit aim was, in the words of its founding father Alfred Siegfried, to prevent the Yenish (the main group of ‘gypsies’ within Switzerland) from ‘reproducing without restraint and bringing new generations of degenerate and abnormal children into the world’; it therefore sought the effective eradication of Yenish culture. In pursuit of these eugenic aims, Pro Juventute removed over 600 Yenish children from their parents, to be raised in orphanages, foster families, and mental institutions – an experience which a later prime minister, Ruth Dreifuss, described as ‘one of the darkest chapters in modern Swiss history’ in 1988.
Switzerland was by no means an exceptional case, however. It has been estimated that in Sweden, where eugenics was even more clearly intertwined with the construction of the social-democratic welfare state, 63,000 citizens were sterilized on eugenic grounds between 1934 and 1976. What is more, other European countries soon followed the Scandinavian and Swiss examples. Eugenic discourses were scientifically orthodox and their respectability was seldom questioned, and so eugenics seeped into mainstream culture in pre-Second World War Europe. The German Social Democrat Party (SPD), which had links with both the Swedish and the Swiss social democrats, played an important role in the development of left-wing versions of eugenics in the Weimar Republic, long before the Nazis applied a more radical form of eugenic policy. The SPD politicians Alfred Grotjahn (who also
occupied the first Chair in Social Hygiene in Berlin) and Wolfgang Heine introduced the first eugenic measures, including the sterilization of disabled people, in the social-democratic-governed Prussia of the 1920s.
Social-democratic scientists, in particular sexologists, played as central a role in Germany as they did in Switzerland. For example, Magnus Hirschfeld was a prominent pioneer in the field of sexual reform and a homosexual himself. He was also a eugenicist who energetically campaigned against marriage for homosexuals. Indeed, he believed that, given their ‘inferior’ genes, homosexuals would be prone to giving birth to retarded children. Despite the fact that many social-democratic eugenicists, including Hirschfeld, later fell victim to the Nazis or fled Germany, they did not, as a rule, oppose Nazi measures such as forced sterilization, a practice that Hirschfeld considered ‘an interesting experiment…’, with the prudent qualification that ‘it will be a long while before the results can be judged on their merits’.
Hirschfeld, like his friend and mentor Forel in Switzerland, was also involved with the social-democrat and eugenicist Marriage Advisory Board, which he had helped to develop in the context of his Institute for Sexual Science in the early 1930s and which became a forerunner of Nazi family eugenics. Disagreements with Nazi eugenicists centred, rather, on the ‘fanatic’ and consequently unscientific character of Nazi science, and especially on the matter of who should be included in the category of inferior persons. Indeed, social democrats such as Hirschfeld disapproved of the Nazi obsession with Jews (and complained that alcoholics and drug addicts consequently received less attention), a disapproval that was shared by British mainstream eugenicists. Interestingly, the International Medical Bulletin, which was edited in Prague by Jewish and social-democrat doctors who had fled Germany, attacked the 1933 Nazi sterilization law on political rather than ethical grounds: ‘such a law is abused as an instrument of power in a capitalist state… only after a social revolution will it be
possible to create the scientific and social conditions for “true” eugenics’.
In the UK and the US, a movement of ‘Bolshevist Eugenics’ emerged in the 1930s, which saw the Soviet Union as the only country that would be able to adopt a scientific stance towards the improvement of the community. In France, socialists such as Vacher de Lapouge, at various times a candidate for the Parti Socialiste Ouvrier, promoted the idea that citizens should fulfil a ‘sexual service’ in addition to their military service to the nation. Socialist versions of eugenics thus became part of the intellectual and political project of European social democracy. It is no surprise that social democrats were avid defenders of eugenics within the state as they held a firm belief in the responsibilities of the state towards its citizens, individually and collectively. As Forel put it, an ‘intelligent, scientific (not dogmatic) social democracy’ was needed in order to ‘solve the eugenic problem’. In addition, social democrats promoted the subordination of individual interests to the collective good. Viewing eugenics as a social technology to alleviate poverty and social ills, social democrats conceptualized eugenic policies as being in the collective interest of the nation.
Although eugenic ideas were articulated from both sides of the political spectrum, and some social democrats strongly opposed them, social democracy nevertheless played a key role in the creation of eugenic technologies in countries such as Switzerland and Sweden between the 1930s and 1960s. It was within the framework of the axis of scientific disciplines, state actors, and private organizations that eugenic thinking was most ‘successfully’ applied, with social democrats being involved as civil servants, bureaucrats, and scientists. In Sweden and Switzerland, in the absence of the colonial encounter with other racial groups, preoccupations with racial purity turned inwards rather than outwards. This resulted in the intensifying categorization and
hierarchization of ‘internal others’ such as ‘gypsies’, ‘loose women’, or the mentally and physically disabled, who were deemed to be sources of physical as well as moral degeneration. Policies were thus particularly engaged in the safeguarding of internal boundaries around the nation which had both a biological and a moral dimension.
It should be remembered, however, that there were internal divisions among social democrats regarding eugenics; moreover, social-democrat versions of eugenics were dwarfed by the Nazi programmes. It would be misleading to align social democracy and eugenics in any simplistic way.
The emergence of modern welfare policies and the presence of a favourable political context offered an institutional framework for attempts to realize the eugenic dream. Eugenic technologies such as sterilization without consent and marriage interdictions were combined with other measures such as eugenic education, sex education, and marriage advice. Limiting the numbers of those population categories that were to become the main recipients of the new welfare provisions appeared in this context as a rational means of cost reduction. Although not all policy-makers agreed with the eugenic emphasis on the influence of heredity rather than the social environment, the cost-reduction argument often led them nevertheless to support eugenically motivated sterilizations. After all, sterilization was a lot cheaper for the state than the long-term financial support of ‘degenerates’.
The widescale social and political experiments with eugenics illustrate the concern of the state with the reproductive sexuality of its citizens. Drawing heavily on biological understandings, eugenic policies nevertheless failed to acknowledge the role played by men in reproduction. Politics around eugenics and Aids illustrates the complex intersections of sexuality with hierarchies around gender and ‘race’, and its connections to notions of
individual and collective ‘purity’. Both policy contexts suggest, moreover, that the interests of the individual do not always coincide with those of the majority. Collective mobilizations around state intervention in the area of sex have seen feminist and gay organizations occupy politically complex, and at times contradictory, positions.