Facing Our Assumptions

Facing Eugenics: Reproduction, Sterilization, and the Politics of Choice, by Erika Dyck, is a social history o9781442612556f sexual sterilization operations in twentieth-century Canada. Looking at real-life experiences of men and women who, either coercively or voluntarily, participated in the largest legal eugenics program in Canada, it considers the impact of successive legal policies and medical practices on shaping our understanding of contemporary reproductive rights.

Facing Eugenics
was recently reviewed by Mary Horodyski for the Winnipeg Free Press. Horodyski said of the book, “Facing Eugenics invites us to carefully consider both our past and present assumptions about who we determine to be valuable human beings.”

Here’s an excerpt from the Introduction to the book.

At the heart of eugenics programs, however, lay a
desire to exert power and surveillance over families that did not suit the
national or regional plan – and although eugenics emerged as a transnational
ideology, its expression was more regional in character.

The concept of eugenics crystallized some of these broader agendas
into a coherent set of arguments backed by science and aided at times by
financial expediency. In Britain, as historian Angélique Richardson explains,
eugenics focused on the urban poor, and assumed a clear class
dimension in its articulation of population control. British eugenicists
also more often embraced tools of deportation and segregation as a way
of controlling this undesirable segment of the population. American eugenicists,
by comparison, more often tended to reinforce racial differences,
developing studies of anthropometry – biological sciences aimed
at studying the physical attributes associated with different racial typologies.
The thirty US states that passed eugenics laws also took different
approaches. Indiana took an early lead by implementing sterilization
legislation in 1907; Georgia’s entry in the field came as late as 1937.
California adopted an accelerated pace, ultimately sterilizing over 20,000
individuals, far more than any other North American jurisdiction. Some
southern states, including North Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia, registered
sterilizations in the thousands; others, including South Carolina,
Alabama, and Mississippi, each recorded hundreds of sterilizations. The
repeal of these state laws also bears a patchwork of regional variations:
changes came in New York and New Jersey as early as the 1920s, while
sterilization laws remain in force in Washington and Mississippi.

Alberta’s program contained traces of British and US approaches, but
the province developed its own subtle variant. The barometer of fitness
in Alberta rested more specifically upon notions of mental ability, intelligence,
and potential for responsible parenthood. Intelligence arose as
a key variable in decisions about mental and physical fitness alongside
social value, and was often grafted onto other criteria, including race,
ethnicity, and class or poverty. It also conveniently applied to a largely
immigrant population as a way of discussing ideal family values
through the lens of intelligence and public health.

The early applications of eugenics discourse worldwide focused primarily
on marginalized populations, including poor communities and
institutionalized groups of individuals deemed mentally ill, defective,
or criminal. Studies measured, and later predicted, the inheritability of
defective qualities. The notion of defects, however, included a wide
range of behaviours and symptoms that increasingly were medicalized
in an attempt to gauge heredity. This development was not entirely reductionist:
the interplay between biology and the environment was
well recognized, challenging investigators to consider more carefully
definitions of defect and the process of inheritance. For example, alcoholism
suggested that individuals might suffer from biological defects
that caused their bodies to metabolize alcohol in defective or dysfunctional
ways. Regardless of the pathology of the behaviour, however,
alcoholic parents were also considered ill equipped to raise children;
improper supervision and care contributed to the development of
adults with maladapted reasoning, judgment, and morality.


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