Britain’s Long and Dark Relationship with Eugenics

Winston Churchill, a proponent of eugenics

Trigger Warning: This article contains discussions of ableism (including ableist slurs), classim, racism, and eugenics.

Recently, Conservative Vice-Chair Ben Bradley made headlines by calling for people living in poverty to be sterilised in order to prevent Britain from “drowning in a vast sea of unemployed wasters.” Granted, he did write this in 2012, but it’s still worrying that a 22-year-old budding politician wanted to sterilise the poor.

Yet, as shocking as this may seem, it is not surprising. As much as we like to forget the more unsavoury parts of British political history, our dark past is still making waves today.

Eugenics is essentially the engineering of natural selection and reproduction in order to promote the survival of a particularly type of human and a particular set of genetics. We apply this premise to animals all the time, but when this thinking reaches humanity, as it often does, politics can get very, very dark.

The theory of genetic determinism has been used for centuries to fuel the idea that if a society is made up of a certain mix of genes, it will produce people that are as close to perfect as possible. Popular icons such as Major Leonard Darwin (son of Charles Darwin) and Marie Stopes argued that social issues such as alcoholism, crime, and unemployment would be solved if society was only made up of people with these ‘good genes’.

It sounds unthinkable, but Britain is regarded to be the first place to suggest modern eugenics as a controlled solution to many of society’s problems. Not Nazi Germany; not some far-flung country — Britain. The idea that the white, cis, straight, abled Briton was more deserving of life than any other seeped into how society treated citizens of the Empire, people of colour, the mentally ill, and disabled people from the 19th century right through to present day.

Ben Bradley’s comments were specifically aimed at the poor, who he sees as a drain on society: contributing nothing, using up the country’s resources, and having too many children. This is not a new argument. Politicians have called for individuals from the ‘Social Problem Group’ to be sterilised for decades — the argument being that too many children born into this group would plunge Britain into economic and social decline. Of course, in the 1930s, this idea became even more rife due to the Great Depression, leading working class people to undergo ‘voluntary sterilisation’.  This type of action was seen to ‘respond creatively to the country’s crisis, without endangering existing social and economic institutions,’ especially by conservative and politically active members of the upper classes.

Similarly, mentally ill and disabled people were seen to be ‘unfit’ for society, and were believed to be contaminating a population with their genes. It is for this reason that 19th century English scientists such as William Goodell advocated the castration and spaying of the ‘insane’, and statistician Francis Galton argued that reproduction in healthy families should be encouraged financially, whilst reproduction from those that were not should be discouraged. To promote the idea that this would aid society and the human race as a whole, Galton published a novel, Kantsaywhere, about an imagined society that followed a religion of eugenics. This man was later knighted and made a fellow of the Royal Society, proving that his ideas were incredibly popular and deemed acceptable.

“This country’s historical enthusiasm for a policy which encourages us to decide who is and isn’t worthy of life is bound to leave scars on society.”

Galton was in good company. Influential men such as Winston Churchill agreed with him, asserting that ‘The multiplication of the feeble-minded is a very terrible danger to the race.’ This really isn’t surprising considering Churchill’s views on other marginalised groups. After all, Churchill is the man that forced Kenyans into concentration camps when they rebelled against British rule, arguing that ‘they needed to recognise the superiority of race.’

These horrific ideas continued well into the late 20th century.  In 1985, one MP felt they would have enough support to claim during a Commons debate that aborting a ‘handicapped’ foetus would save the country £1 million over a lifetime. Ben Bradley’s comments, therefore, are simply a part of British politics’ long and ugly history of classism, ableism, and moral bankruptcy.

But it’s not just politicians that explicitly and implicitly support eugenics. Every day, ordinary people blame low-income families for their situation because they’ve had too many.  Every day, ordinary people choose to have abortions solely because the baby has Down’s Syndrome. We dehumanise refugees and we let disabled people down at every level of society. All of these things stem from the deep-rooted idea that some humans are simply more deserving of life and are more desirable for our society than others.

In the end it’s not surprising that these comments were made – this country’s historical enthusiasm for a policy which encourages us to decide who is and isn’t worthy of life is bound to leave scars on society. But that doesn’t mean we should rail against it.

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