Eugenics neither began nor ended with the Nazis, despite the term being most-often associated with their despicable crimes. As the far-right attempt to rehabilitate these abhorrent ideas, Aislinn Shanahan Daly traces some of the hidden history of eugenics.
It is a dark omen that the word eugenics has resurfaced recently on social media. Prominent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins tweeted not long ago that whilst he deplores eugenics morally, it would work “in practice”. It may seem like an irrelevant rant in the echo chamber of social media, but the fact that a prominent public figure considers it reasonable to propagate eugenics is worrying.
One of Boris Johnson’s advisers, Andrew Sabisky, resigned in February following a media furore over his past writings on genetics, including a quote that there are “very real racial differences in intelligence”. Even the Tory’s first approach to the COVID-19 crisis was to allow thousands of unnecessary deaths to build ‘herd immunity’ amongst the UK population. There are very real veins of eugenic thought snaking through the capitalist zeitgeist, and would be wise to be vigilant about how these ideas could gain traction again.
Eugenic ideas were not popularly treated as controversial until after the Second World War, but they have still managed to resurface through covert structural racism and contemporary debates around population control and so-called ‘overpopulation’. These ideas always implicate women as they seek to constrain reproductive capabilities. Eugenics is inherently racist as well as sexist, as the belief in eugenics requires a belief in racial superiority. This superiority is not necessarily linked to skin colour as a biological indicator, though mainstream perceptions of racialisation are often limited to this. Eugenics can be reduced to the belief that one group of human beings is genetically superior to the other; and has been historically used as a pseudo-scientific basis for the exploitation or extermination of certain populations.
It is impossible to understand eugenics without considering some of its historic roots. While in its origins as a practice, it is directly linked to sexual reproduction and the control of women’s bodies, in modern instances, eugenics pertains more to biologically-situated racism. Looking at eugenics from this standpoint enables us to see how certain oppressions, racial, sexual, ability-based, and gender-based, are all explicitly connected, and how eugenics is a site of policy and power where these oppressions can be utilised to the benefit of the ruling class
Spartan society: An early site of eugenic practices
According to most historical studies, it can be argued that Spartan society treated women differently to contemporary Greek and Roman societies. In Ancient Athens, women were considered a necessary evil, a tolerated part of the family unit that had no involvement with the public life of their husband, though this was customary rather than legally enforced. This was probably the reality for most reasonably privileged women, but not necessarily for the lower-class women who had to work.
The exclusion of women from public life was not as extreme in Sparta. As eighty-five percent of the Spartan population was made up of women and the underclasses, many women who were forbidden from performing labouring tasks needed something with which to occupy themselves while the men were fighting in the military. Athleticism was highly valued and women were expected to maintain themselves through a variety of sports activities; running, wrestling, javelin throwing; with the central aim of making their bodies more resilient for childbirth.
Surrogacy was deemed acceptable in situations where a man was undesiring of his wife, as the primary function of marriage was the reproduction of the Spartan population. According to Xenophon, a man could even use another man’s wife to birth his children. These attitudes and social practices towards women enforced their existence as reproductive vessels.
Spartan society also practiced eugenics. Newborn baby boys were first bathed in red wine, then scrutinized by the Gerousia elders, and if they deemed the baby of ill-constitution they ordered the mother to expose the baby on Mount Taygetus. Those who survived could grow up through the agoge school system and become warriors.
Little is known as to whether the survival of baby girls was treated with the same prudence. Considering how women’s physical health and prowess was valued, it would be safe to assume these eugenic practices targeted them too. The role of women in Spartan society, like much of our assumptions, is based on questionable sources. Not much was written or built by the Spartans, and the information gap was compensated for with accounts of allies and enemies, making it hard to distinguish whether evidence is biased or accurate.
This latter fact did not matter much to Hitler. He fetishised Spartan society as a model society on which to base the construction of a modern fascist state. However, the Nazis did not begin the trend of glorifying ancient societies; some Enlightenment-era political thinkers were also partial.
Rousseau regarded Sparta as “the example we all ought to follow” when discussing civil society, and claimed that in ancient Athens, “It is certain that domestic peace was in general better established…than is the case today”. There is a celebration of life divided by gender in Rousseau’s statement, which was not controversial for the time, of men dominating the public, civil, moral realm and the ownership of property, and of women taking up their role as naturally subject and absent from public life.
Eugenics of modernity
The emergence of eugenics in the modern era can be linked to a reactionary section of romantic philosophers and thinkers. Their theories of societal decline and degeneration erupted out of nostalgia for the ancien régime in France and a rejection of the Enlightenment and the French revolution. They fetishised the aristocratic civilisation that modernity and the bourgeois capitalist class was dismantling.
In the later nineteenth century, degeneration theory birthed an offspring; eugenic theory. The Industrial Revolution had resulted in the rapid growth of populations in the west, and high concentrations of people in urban areas. This led to a devastating spread of diseases, facilitated by inadequate sewerage, terrible labouring conditions and cramped living spaces.
The bourgeoisie also resisted any attempts at social legislation to ease these issues. To many, eugenics seemed like a good solution to these problems. So-called biological degeneration of the human race was the outcome of too much attention given to the ‘weaker’ elements. The solution was to sterilise the population of ‘degenerates’ so that they would not reproduce their ‘hereditary degeneracy’. Racial superiority was always intertwined with this; as popular racist ideas suggested that race was a biological phenomenon and a feature of degeneracy.
Modern eugenic thought originates in Britain, although eugenic legislation was never passed. Many laws around marriage bans and sterilisation were passed in the United States of America from the mid to late nineteenth century onwards. After the Nazi atrocities, eugenics lost popularity due to its obvious associations. Contrary to what we would possibly expect, it wasn’t that eugenics itself was considered bad, but it was the ‘perversion’ of it by the Nazis that made it unacceptable. A paper on eugenics from 1930 states “its progress has been slow owing to the intricacies of the law, the hostility of the Catholic Church and the conservatism of American public opinion”.
This sentiment seems bizarre, but eugenics was not considered a right-wing idea at the time. In fact, many feminist organisations in the early twentieth century advocated eugenics. State and local feminist groups in the United States campaigned for eugenic policies. Some scholars argue that this was because they were falling in line with conventional political ideas, though others argue that there was a racial bias as the feminist movement was dominated by middle-class white women. They attempted to frame the issue of gender equality as one of ‘racial improvement’. This was highly contradictory considering that eugenic policies in the United States at the time were targeting women who were considered sexually or mentally deviant. Eugenic feminism was really an attempt to allow white middle class women to emancipate themselves off the backs of oppressed minorities.
To further emphasise the almost-universal acceptance of eugenics across the west, it is interesting to note that Ireland had its own eugenic societies. Prominent members of the national Eugenics Society included William Butler Yeats and the Guinness family, as well as many others of the Anglo-Irish elite which dominated Irish society at the time. It is also interesting to note that eugenics was discussed and received across religious lines, although there was a Catholic opposition to interventions in sexual reproduction, such as sterilisation. However, the Catholic church welcomed ideas around restricting ‘racially deficient’ individuals from marriage and, through that, controlling their ability to procreate. The dominance of the conservative Catholic church in Irish society after the formation of the Free State is probably one of the main reasons eugenics did not gain the same foothold as it did in other countries.
Of course, the church still played a heinous role in the running of the Magdalene Laundries, forced adoption programs and propagating social conservatism around issues such as abortion and marriage equality. All of these examples involved the violent policing of women and families’ reproductive roles.
The Nazi Regime
The Nazi sterilisation regime was especially heinous and is often what people immediately associate with the concept of eugenics. Emulating the Spartan Gerousia, sterilisation courts were established in 1934 under the so-called ‘Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring’ of 1933.
Sterilisation was made compulsory for people with hereditary diseases, a broad spectrum of mental illnesses including schizophrenia, psychosis and manic depressive disorder, epilepsy, neurological diseases, and physical disability. The removal of the uterus for ‘mentally deficient’ women was advocated though once sterilised, they were considered at risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases from men enticed by the fact that they were incapable of becoming pregnant. Hitler’s obsession with direct medical killing manifested in the T4 euthanasia plan, which involved mass murdering of ‘degenerate’ individuals.
While there was a fairly equal level of sterilisations on a gender basis, servants, unskilled and poor workers, sex workers and Jewish women were overrepresented. The degradation of women was central to Nazi ideology. Much like Spartan society, motherhood was seen as the only suitable role for a woman, and reproduction was state policy. Women were sent out of the workplace and back to the household, and men into the public and homosocial military sphere. Unmarried ‘racially viable’ women were candidates for breeding camps where they would be impregnated.
This was the re-establishment of the ‘private’ woman and the ‘public’ man; not a reconstruction of Victorian gender roles but a harking back to Spartan designation of women as reproductive vessels. Nazism was the apex of fixation on Sparta. Eugenicist Karl Muller claimed that the Spartans were racially pure due to their Nordicism and military proficiency. Social democrat Victor Ehrenberg stated while in exile in 1934 that Sparta was the first state to inject itself into every aspect of a citizen’s life; which is exactly what the Nazi regime was doing at the time. Hitler praised Sparta in his unpublished Zweites Buch (1928) as “the first racialist state” to practice eugenics.
Post-war eugenic policies
In the 1950s-60s, discourse around eugenics erupted again with a focus on population control. Population growth in developing countries, alongside the Cold War and general social unrest caused anxieties amongst western powers. Involuntary sterilisation of ‘feeble-minded’ women in the United States did not stop until the 1970s, with the definition alluding to prisoners, mentally ill people, and even ‘bad mothers’.
Eugenic practices have not ceased, and this is especially evident in incidents of coercive birth-control administration. This is not to say that contraceptives are not a good thing for many people’s lives, but the choices of women of colour regarding their reproductive health and wellbeing have been and still are being hindered by the racist administrations of these contraceptives.
The state, philanthropic organisations and pharmaceutical companies work in tandem to implement these veiled eugenic projects in the USA. Depo-provera, a contraceptive injection, was administered to Navajo women and Black women in the south of the USA before it was even approved in the 1980s. Low income adolescents from Black and Latinx neighbourhoods in the United States were targeted for Norplant use, with philanthropic organisations even subsidising the provision of the contraceptive. In 2013, a report showed that Ethiopian migrants in Israel were being coerced into getting Depo-Provera injections with threats of not being permitted entry into Israel and being told that they wouldn’t be able to bear the pain of childbirth.
The CRACK (Children requiring a caring kommunity) programme ran in California in the 1990s, offering $200 to any drug user who could prove they were permanently or temporarily sterilised, offered more money to those who chose the former option though they were eventually forced to change this policy. There are reports that prison officers, social workers and hospitals referred patients to the CRACK programme. This programme still exists today under the name Project Prevention.
It was only in April 2017 that the European Court ruled the forced sterilisation of transgender individuals who wish to acquire legal gender recognition was deemed a breach of human rights. At this time, twenty-two countries in the European Union were still enforcing this policy.
In Japan, in January 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that transgender individuals seeking gender recognition had to have their original reproductive organs removed before it could be granted, with the court stating that “the law is constitutional because it was meant to reduce confusion in families and society”. In this instance, the judiciary is attempting to preserve the traditional family structure and the normative role for human beings determined by their assigned gender at birth. The sterilisation of transgender people is evidence that the hegemonic understanding of gender is still intrinsically tied to biological sex traits.
Eugenics and the far-right
The resurgence of eugenic thought amongst the far right, with bizarre and statistically falsified non-scientific articles doing the rounds online, is alarming. Writing for the The Occidental Observer (a magazine funded by ultra-right wing ex-Republican multi-millionaire racist William Regnery II, who financially props up alt-right figures) Marian Van Court spuriously claims that:
“If the retarded were given sufficient cash or other incentives to adopt permanent birth control, mental retardation could be cut by approximately 1/3 in just one generation. This is only one among many possible eugenic measures, but this step alone would significantly alleviate all social problems”.
The prevalence of eugenics cannot be denied in far-right ideology. Nevertheless, the World Health Organization report from May 2014, on Eliminating forced, coercive and otherwise involuntary sterilization, mentions none of the political issues that are propelling the growth of the far right advocating explicit eugenic policies, or the culpability of racist nation states that have and continue to allow eugenic practices to continue.
It is equally frightening that the bureaucratic neoliberal centre is incapable of dealing with this problem, as the essentialisation of biologically assigned sex and racial signifiers is vital to the functioning of a capitalist society. Capitalism needs women to perform unpaid domestic labour, it needs racialised people to scapegoat for its inadequacies, and it needs to racialise people in order to justify its imperialist projects. The biological determinism that capitalism is so wedded to is not a sustainable ideological standpoint and has to be eliminated. To justify the idea that we live in a meritocracy, or that there is a small group of better, more efficient people that should control most of the wealth in the world, the belief in genetic superiority becomes a ‘logical’ position – a truly disgusting ‘justification’.
In recent years, online communities have formed with the goal of promoting eco-facism; a loose subulture centered around the fetishization of right-wing terrorism amid the impending collapse of society due to climate catastrophe. Eco-facism proposes genocidal solutions and an end to industrial society, which would pave the way for the so-called restoration of white male authority and blood-and-soil nationalism. This kind of racist ideology can seem legitimate to people who are alienated from the mainstream narrative of climate justice; making socialist arguments around the climate movement is imperative as a part of countering contemporary racist ideologies.
In his article in International Socialism, Roddy Slorach argues that scientific refutation of eugenic arguments is important, but without political action it may be futile. He notes that direct actions to deplatform eugenicists in universities have been effective in the past. Whilst most contemporary science does not hold a candle for eugenics, state policies are still influenced by its legacy. The far-right has invigorated a resurgence of scientific racism which needs to be challenged at every turn.
Going forward: challenging the legitimacy of eugenics
The essentialisation of the family unit, with all its ideological demands, is key to the basis of eugenics. Eugenic practices, which emerged as an attempt to fine tune the genetic pool of humanity regarding physical ability, evolved alongside the formation of racial categories and is now firmly intertwined with racism. Marx and Engels wrote about how capitalism informs and requires a family unit to preserve itself; “proletarian marriage is monogamous in the etymological sense of the word, but not at all in its historical sense.”
What this means is that marriage and women’s role in human reproduction has not been a static, biological reality. It changes alongside material conditions, namely economic conditions such as colonialism and the development of capitalism. As eugenics is firmly rooted in misogyny and racism, and the logic of power and conquest, the same applies. It is an ideological phenomenon that has evolved alongside the development of systematic human oppression. Different from the family unit or marriage however, as a concept it is broadly socially unacceptable.
The horrific legacy of eugenic policies and the current sterilisation laws in many countries across the world will haunt the history of humanity for a long time to come. Atrocities may surface again if the reactionary elements of society that peddle eugenics as a legitimate science are allowed to flourish, and they must be opposed and dismantled at every opportunity. A world that does not rely on segregation by class or repressive identity categories needs to be proposed convincingly to working class people, and be desired by them too.
A strong, left wing movement is clearly necessary to smite the remnants of biological determinism and eugenics. However, neoliberalism has built itself upon years of imperialism and colonial sabotage, and racist ideologies are central to its existence. The removal of a political system based on greed and exclusion, and its replacement with a struggle for equality and economic justice is the only way that such standpoints can be eradicated from society.