What Sorts of People Series on Eugenicisim, Philo, and Disability

The bloggers over at What Sorts of People have been posting both the video and transcripts from their 4 person panel at the Western Candian Philosophy Associations annual conference over the last month. As Implied by the title of this post, their panel addressed Eugenicism, Philosophy, and Disability. I’ve been reading the transcripts with keen interest not only in the ongoing links between eugenicism and thinking around disability rights but also the legacy eugenicism has within the university.

For those unfamiliar with eugenicism as a doctrine/pseudo science, basically eugenicists believe in controlled reproduction for the “good of society.” It is predicated on the belief that savagery and civilization are inherent qualities linked to specific races, locations, classes, and abilities. Only certain groups (white, able-bodied, upper class, heterosexual, etc.) should reproduce. Often, we talk about eugenicism in terms of race and culture since the most widescale examples of eugnicism include Nazi Germany and the forced sterilization of Indigenous and Puerto Rican women under a law penned by George W. Bush long before he was made president. However, eugenicist interference in the reproductive rights of women has a long history with regards to dis/ability and incarceration, as well as any number of poor women, women of color, and other marginalized women. That history can be traced to prominent feminist canonical figures like Margaret Sanger, current pregnancy prevention programs like C.R.A.C.K, and ongoing discussions about the sexual and reproductive rights of differently-abled people in national and international news.

The two opening talks in the series give some historical background to eugenicism. Dick Sobsey’s “Varieties of Eugenics Experience in the 21st Century” takes a look at social connections and how societies are constituted prior to eugenicism and then after as well as a pop culture, easy access, look at some of the key concepts. In his talk, entitled “Preventing Disability: Nordic Perspectives”, Simo Vehmas outlines the basic history of eugenicism and then breaks down its impact for differently-abled people in Finland. One of the key points of his talk is the location of controlling differently-abled people’s sexual expression and sexuality as part of a control of their reproductive rights. So that they are rendered asexual and forced to be so as part of the eugenicist agenda even tho sex and reproduction do not necessarily have to be linked:

the sexual activities of women with impairments were regarded dangerous because sex in their cases resulted with great probability in a birth of a child with similar characteristics, similar unwanted characteristics.

The second 1/2 of his talk goes on to suggest that with regards to dis/ability rights the issue of “informed consent” as an out clause to forced sterilization becomes a misnomer. Which raises several questions around the reproductive rights of differently-abled women: How can consent be given? by whom? And does the failure to establish consent then mean that no differently-abled patients can be sterilized even if they request the procedure themselves?

This part of his talk also includes a discussion of how abortion was used as a eugenicist tool to enforce sterilization by requiring those getting abortions to also get sterilized. While there was no similar uniform and stated policy in the U.S., many women of color and differently-abled women have reported to being forceable sterilized during abortions or told that complications with the abortion required sterilization or hysterechtomies that are not certain were actually required. Others have reported going in for birth control and being talked into sterilization. So that these issues permeate marginalized women’s reproductive choices regardless of legal policy or illegal practice. And when we think about reproductive rights the continued failure to adequately address the impact of eugenicism on both the past and the present of many marginalized women’s lives has often translated into a racially and ability divided movement in which marginalized women are stigmatized as ignorant or arch conservative when that might not be the case.

Finally Simo questions the autonomy model that has replaced overt reproductive interference as potentially modern day eugenicism:

paradigm change in prenatal practice. Whereas previously, the main goal was prevention of disability but now the main-and this was based and it was even admitted that this goal was based pretty much on eugenic principles-but now the main goal is providing people with autonomous unlimited freedom for choice and so the success of prenatal genetic testing and various measures is measured by freedom of choice. So autonomy is the prominent value, everything is based on autonomy. In practice this means that the more tests there are available, the more choices you have and the more freedom you have. This is the kind of logic, which can be… and people actually, I think, believe this, although of course it’s not very credible, because more medicalized and technical pregnancy gets, women are more and more at the mercy of doctors who are the only ones who actually know what’s being tested and how to interpret and understand these test results.

As this quote points out, the increasing medical testing involved in pregnancy not only creates a situation where women are reliant on doctors who may be invested in unspoken prejudices about ability, race, class, and sexuality, but the emphasis on able-bodied delivery remains intact. Worse, because it now follows a freedom and autnomy script, the desire for able bodied children, testing to prevent the birth of differently-abled children, and the potential for termination of differently-abled fetuses becomes a function of “freedom.”  That language leads to ideological acceptance of eugenicism as evidenced in discussions excusing or empathizing with parents who kill their own differently-abled children intentionally or through long term neglect.

The third installment at WSP deals with naming, history, and honor. More specifically, Philosopher Martin Tweedale discusses the decision to stop awarding the John McEachran prize to students in philosophy because of McEachran involvement in eugenicist driven sterilizations of inmates in Alberta Canada. His target was primarily people with mental and physical disabilities and indigenous peoples and took place over several decades. John McEachran was also the founder of the philosophy and psychology departments at U Alberta and one time Provost. The prize established posthumously in his honor was funded in such a way that it could not be renamed nor the monies funneled into other programs and awarded through other means.

The debate surrounding defunding the prize related to issues of honoring exceptional student’s work, ensuring that student need was met, and whether or not a man who had participated in heinous research should have the positive contributions of his career permanently blotted out as a result. With regards to the latter, anyone who has read my thoughts on the DW Griffith award knows that I think we can acknowledge the positive contributions of people without permanently enshrining them or honoring them or others through them in ways that erase their offenses or render them irrelevant or lesser. Nor do I believe that it would be honor to receive a prize in the name of someone who had forcibly sterilized people on the basis of a racist, classist, and ableist belief that certain groups of people should not be allowed to reproduce in the same way, I see no honor in receiving a prize named after a person who cemented the myth of the black rapist and valorized the creation of the Klan at a time when lynching, burning, and deadly beatings of black people at the hands of said group was at its height. Tweedale offers a more complex opinion in which he argues that the university was never implicated in MacEachran’s research nor did have the resources to replace the needed prize. (Can you be implicated in life of a man if you choose to honor him and others through him in a prize that does not acknowledge his offensive legacy?)

This talk arrives at WSP blog at the exact moment that historians, anthropologists, and philosophers are knee deep in discussions about ritual and honor over at Dead Voles. For me it provides another unique layer to the discussion of how we honor past academics tho clearly from a different standpoint. Given how many times we have uncovered eugenicism or unethical research in our intellectual histories, the decision making at the U Alberta and the reflections Tweedale is engaging in in the talk may provide early steps to the redress many of us involved in university level governance may one day have to take.

You can, and should, read the series at their blog using the following links

They have not, as far as I know, posted the fourth and final speaker’s work on the panel. But as you can see from the synopsis here, it is well worth the read and the thinking it should raise. For feminist bloggers thinking through the discussion of how to be more accountable to differently-abled women and to engaging disability rights, the second panel discussion is a good jumping off point. (Then again, based on that last comment by Piny 3/30 at 1pm, maybe not . . .)

2 thoughts on “What Sorts of People Series on Eugenicisim, Philo, and Disability

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