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Eugenics: What’s in a Name?

As a word eugenics has much to be said for it. Although coined by a Briton (from the Greek) it travels easily into other languages. It is short and easy to spell, with its two parts meaning good birth or good descent. Consequently it is opposite to dysgenics – bad birth. As a concept it therefore has much to be said for it, with good birth plainly more satisfactory than bad birth.

However, right from the start, eugenics always meant rather more. Francis Galton, the word’s coiner, defined eugenics in 1904 as ‘the science which deals with all the influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those influences that develop them to the utmost advantage’. Many geneticists were members of the various eugenics societies, but so too were other kinds of people. War was said, by one of these others, to be a gladiatorial contest, and therefore eugenic. Immigration to the United States should be banned, said another, if the stock was not to deteriorate. The new immigrants were being called ‘tares in the wheat’ and ‘genuine human weeds’. Even some geneticists were making strong pronouncements during the earlier decades of the 20th century: ‘Proper matings are the greatest means of permanently improving the human race, of saving it from imbecility, poverty, disease, and immorality’. Julian Huxley wrote: ‘It is clear that the general quality of the world’s population is not very high, is beginning to deteriorate, and should and could be improved’.

Eugenics was therefore steering an erratic course, coerced in all manner of directions. The new ‘social Darwinisin’ was equating ‘the unfit’ of the animal kingdom with ‘the poor’ of mankind. Theodore Roosevelt spoke of the ‘yellow peril’ and the ‘race suicide’ of his fellow citizens unless they bred more ‘native Americans’ (which certainly did not mean Indians). Immigrants from the Mediterranean region were said, by the Dillingham Commission, to be ‘biologically inferior’. This official statement in 1907 encouraged further comments in similar vein. ‘The immigration problem is mainly a problem of blood.’ ‘An enormous proportion of undesirable citizens (within the U.S.) are descended from undesirable blood overseas.’ Somewhat inevitably the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, which followed such sentiments, considered that all newcomers should be of the same background as those in charge of the new legislation. Henceforth Great Britain was to be allowed 65,000 immigrants a year, Italy 5,666, and Greece 308. All such restrictive enactments were put forward under the all-embracing title of eugenics.

Britain did not follow suit, being an exporter of people rather than an importer, but the Galton lectures, delivered under the auspices of its Eugenics Society, had titles during the l920s seeming to indicate similar thinking. ‘What Nations and Classes Will Prevail?’ asked Dean Inge, with this talk followed in later years by: ‘The Ruin of Rome and Its Lessons for Us’ (F. C. S. Schiller); ‘Some Reflections on Eugenics and Religion’ (Bishop of Birmingham); ‘Causes of Racial decay’ (C. J. Bond); and ‘The Social Problem Group as Illustrated by a Series of East London Pedigrees’ (E. J. Lidbetter). A Bill was put before Parliament in the 1930s which would have permitted the sterilisation of ‘persons who are deemed likely to transmit a mental defect or a grave physical disability to subsequent generations’ whether or not they had this defect themselves. This Bill did not become law, but was considered a eugenic statement. Thinking about sterilisation was widespread in Britain, even if not actively promoted.

It was promoted in the United States. By the early 1930s there were 27 states with compulsory sterilisation measures on their statute books, with potential subjects including ‘sexual perverts’, ‘drug fiends’, ‘diseased and degenerate persons’ and ‘drunkards’. California carried out 10,000 such sterilisations by 1935. Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and a couple of Canadian provinces also had legislation to prevent various kinds of citizen from possible procreation. Germany instituted its Hereditary Health Law within six months of the Nazis coming to power, but such an act could well have been introduced without the help of a new government, the opinion so widely held that many of society’s ills could be ameliorated if less desirable individuals refrained from breeding.

Within one year of its new law 56,000 individuals had been sterilised in Germany. Five times that number were to receive similar treatment before a new law, decreed in 1939, stipulated that euthanasia could be conducted instead of sterilization. Germany’s actions, both before and after the start of World War Two, served to devastate many individuals in other nations whose thoughts about breeding, about inborn racial inequalities and inferior stock, had been running along similar lines. Eugenics had become a very dirty word.

America’s immigration laws of 1924 were not repealed until 1965. From that time any country could send up to 20,000 immigrants. The American Eugenics Society did not change its name until 1972, speedily re-emerging as the Society for the Study of Social Biology. Britain’s Eugenics Society waited even longer before becoming the Galton Institute, this delay possibly encouraged by so little harm being done locally in the name of eugenics. Even so the stigma attached to ‘good birth’ did not vanish because of all this name-changing. The word still smacked, however inappropriately in the context of the activities of the Galton Institute, of compulsory sterilisation, of racial attitudes and intolerance, and of wholesale death.

It is therefore small wonder that hackles were raised, to say the least, when China introduced what it called a ‘eugenics law’ in 1994. This suggested that people suspected of having a ‘serious genetic disease’ might face compulsory sterilisation if they wished to marry. As the 18th International Congress of Genetics was shortly to be held in Beijing there was immediate talk that the meeting should be boycotted before being moved to another country. China responded by saying that the offending legislation had been renamed as the Law on Maternal and Infant Health Care. There had been ‘ambiguities’ in some wording about genetic counselling, with the term ‘eugenics’ used for the Chinese ‘yousheng’ which can also mean ‘healthy birth’. The new law also had an economic function, stated the Chinese, as their country had to support an estimated 50 million disabled people. ‘We must make it clear that Chinese ‘eugenics’ is not the eugenics of Nazism, racism or genetic discrimination,’ said an official of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; ‘Our only concern is to improve the health of the next generation.’

A workshop on the ‘science and ethics of eugenics’, set up within the scientific community, argued that the term ‘eugenics’ is currently used in so many ways ‘as to make it no longer suitable for use in scientific literature’. The workshop concluded its meetings with eight recommendations, the dismissal of eugenics as a useful term for science being one of them. The 18th congress went ahead in Beijing, with that recommendation universally applied.

Perhaps it is now time for everyone to follow this counsel. The word has had such a troubled history since its creation, with so much of that history being loathsome, that it will continue to serve as a red rag for general incitement. It is no longer seen as a synonym for good birth. Instead it is indubitably linked with other unwelcome terms, such as racial superiority, disharmonious crossings, and inferior stock. The word eugenics was coined, and found suitable at the time. At Beijing it was found unsuitable, before being coupled with the recommendation that, as it was no longer valid currency, it should be removed from circulation.

Anthony Smith