Eugenic ‘race improvement’
Whereas state policies around Aids put the main emphasis on treatment, support, and transformation of sexual practices of individual citizens, other types of state action regarding sex have been primarily driven by collective concerns. 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. As Michel Foucault put it:
Sexuality has always been the site where the future of our species,
and at the same time our truth as human subjects, are formed.
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, about overpopulation, about ‘surplus’ of female or male children, 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 term ‘eugenics’ was popularized by Sir Francis Galton in 1883, to refer to the genetic improvement of the national ‘stock’ on the basis of the scientific study of ‘all influences that tend, on however remote a degree, to give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had’. Galton regarded the evolutionary processes analysed by his cousin Charles Darwin, in particular the ideas of natural selection and the survival of the fittest, as too slow and uncertain for modern needs. Modern society put particularly high demands on its political elites, whose intellectual capacities were evolving too slowly, he argued. 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. Individual citizens had a patriotic duty to contribute to the improvement of the nation through what Galton’s successor Karl Pearson called ‘a conscious race-culture’. As Havelock Ellis, a pioneer of both sexology and of eugenics, put it, ‘sound breeding of the race’ constituted ‘our best hopes for the future of the world’.
Sexologists and psychiatrists were prominently represented within eugenic ‘science’ and activism. Eugenic thought in the first half of the 20th century comprised more precisely three central elements, which all reflected a profoundly biological model of human development: methods of selective breeding, worries about the physical and mental decline of the population, and ideas about the hereditary character of mental and physical illnesses and morally deviant behaviours – all of which directly affected ideas about sexuality and gender. As a combination of science and social movement, eugenics provided an analysis of what was wrong with modern society, how this occurred, and by what means it could be remedied. In the face of mounting threats and anxieties about ‘degeneration’, ‘race suicide’, and the threat
of ‘disorderly sexualities’, eugenicists promoted a comprehensive programme of social engineering founded upon the rational management of reproductive sexuality by the state. It was to become an influential set of ideas, due to overlaps with other social and political concerns. Indeed, in the context of accelerating industrialization and urbanization processes, the rapidly growing urban population appeared as potentially destabilizing to the public order, while disciplined, healthy, and prolific citizens came to be seen as a source of wealth for expanding nation states.
The emergence of modern health and social policies from the turn of the 20th century provided the institutional conditions for translating eugenic rhetoric into a policy programme. Nowadays, eugenics tends to be popularly associated with Nazi Germany, where large-scale experiments in social engineering included forced sterilizations and ‘euthanasia’ of ‘degenerate’ persons.
The 1933 Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring required doctors to register hereditary illnesses in their patients. In the course of the Nazi regime, over 200 ‘Hereditary Health Courts’ were set up, which implemented over 400,000 sterilizations.
However, eugenic ideas found support across the political spectrum, including among socialists and anarchists. Social democrat reformers were among the pioneers of eugenic ‘science’ as well as policy practices in Europe. A number of eugenic policies such as forced sterilization of ‘degenerates’ were strongly promoted by the Left and pioneered in democratic countries. Socialist eugenicists placed great hope in eugenics as a social technology which could alleviate problems such as poverty and alcoholism, especially in combination with the eugenic education of citizens. Socialist versions of eugenics became part of the intellectual and political project of European social democracy. While feminists were to be found on both sides of the debate – supporting and opposing eugenics – most opposition
came from liberals, who rejected state intervention in private life, and churches, particularly the Catholic Church.
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. Rapidly expanding welfare institutions increasingly targeted the ‘inferior’ categories of the national population, who became the main recipients of the growing welfare system. Limiting the number of ‘weeds’ in the national garden therefore appeared as a rational means of reducing welfare costs, which many social democrats as well as feminists supported enthusiastically. For example, Margaret Sanger, a prominent early 20th-century American feminist campaigner for sexual liberation and birth control – which would, she believed, liberate women from the biological burden of reproduction – was also an enthusiastic eugenicist. She wrote in 1925:
Nature eliminates the weeds, but we turn them into parasites and
allow them to reproduce.
Such ‘human weeds’ which ‘clog up the path, drain up the energies and the resources of this little earth’ should be eliminated from the national garden in order to ‘clear the way for a better world’, as she put it in 1922.
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. The political context was more favourable elsewhere in Europe. Countries such as Sweden and Switzerland – interestingly, neither of them colonial powers at the time – pioneered and applied eugenic policies to an extent that British eugenicists could only dream of.