Eugenics and liberty

Eugenic science originated in Britain 100 years ago. Yet, unlike other western countries, Britain never passed eugenics legislation. Why? It was no thanks to the scientists, the conservatives or the socialists-but thanks to a bloody-minded backbencher in the House of Commons
August 19, 1998

Awakened by modern debates over genetic screening, eugenics is returning to haunt many countries. Last year Sweden was embarrassed by the disclosure that enforced sterilisation of allegedly feeble-minded people in the name of eugenics was still going on as late as 1976. In the US, Virginia continued to sterilise the mentally handicapped into the 1970s. There is, however, one omission from this list. Eugenics-the selective breeding of humans-was a British invention, yet in Britain the state never sterilised or killed anybody on eugenic grounds. Why not?

A century ago the eccentric British adventurer, mathematician and entrepreneur, Francis Galton, was the first to suggest that human beings should be bred with an eye to improving the stock. Individuals had been doing so forever, of course, by choosing whom to marry, but Galton wanted the species or the race or the state to have a say in the matter. The focus soon shifted from encouraging the "eugenic" breeding of the best to halting the "dysgenic" breeding of the worst. The "worst" came to mean the "feeble-minded," which included alcoholics, epileptics and criminals.

The main eugenic policy which became law in several countries was compulsory sterilisation of the feeble-minded. The US sterilised 200,000 people for feeble-mindedness, under more than 30 state and federal laws passed between 1910 and 1935. Sweden sterilised 60,000. Canada, Norway, Finland, Estonia and Iceland all passed coercive sterilisation laws and used them. Germany, most notoriously, first sterilised 400,000 people and then murdered many of them. In just 18 months, 70,000 already-sterilised German psychiatric patients were gassed in order to free hospital beds for soldiers wounded in the second world war.

But Britain never passed a eugenic law: that is, it never passed a law allowing the government to interfere in the individual's right to breed. There was never a British law preventing marriage of the mentally deficient; and there was never a law allowing compulsory sterilisation of the feeble-minded. (This is not to deny that there has been individual "freelance" practice of eugenics by doctors or hospitals.)

Britain was not unique; in countries where the influence of the Roman catholic church was strong, there were no eugenic laws. The Netherlands avoided passing any. The Soviet Union, more concerned about killing clever people than dim ones, never put such a law on its books because it officially believed in nurture, not nature. But Britain stands out because it was the source of most eugenic science and propaganda in the first 40 years of this century. Rather than ask how so many countries could have followed such cruel practices, we must turn the question on its head: Why did Britain resist? Who deserves the credit?

Not the scientists. Scientists like to tell themselves today that eugenics was always seen as a "pseudoscience," especially after the discovery of the Hardy-Weinberg equation (which reveals how many more carriers of mutations than overt mutants there are), but there is nothing in the written record to support this. Most scientists welcomed the flattery of being treated as experts in a new technocracy.

Karl Pearson and Ronald Fisher between them invented modern statistics and revolutionised genetics. They made great contributions to knowledge but also provided ammunition for the eugenic movement, which drew its respectability and its arguments from scientists. "No training or education can create [intelligence]," wrote Pearson, "You must breed it." Fisher was obsessed with the fact that poor people had more children than rich people. Even later critics of eugenics, such as Julian Huxley and JBS Haldane, were supporters before 1920; it was the crudity and bias with which eugenic policies came to be adopted in the US which they complained about, not the principle.

So who stopped the scientists? Not the socialists. Although the political left opposed fascism, it embraced eugenics. You have to dig deep to find a prominent British socialist in the first 30 years of this century who expressed even faint opposition to eugenic policies. It is easy to find pro-eugenic quotes from Fabians of the day: HG Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Havelock Ellis, Harold Laski, the Webbs, even JM Keynes said creepy things about the urgent need to stop stupid or disabled people from breeding. A character in Shaw's Man and Superman says: "Being cowards, we defeat natural selection under cover of philanthropy: being sluggards, we neglect artificial selection under cover of delicacy and morality." The works of HG Wells are rich in juicy quotes: "The children people bring into the world can be no more their private concern entirely than the disease germs they disseminate or the noises a man makes in a thin-floored flat." Or "The swarms of black, and brown, and dirty white, and yellow people... will have to go." Or "It has become apparent that whole masses of human population are, as a whole, inferior in their claim upon the future... to give them equality is to sink to their level, to protect and cherish them is to be swamped in their fecundity." He added, reassuringly, "All such killing will be done with an opiate." (It wasn't.) Socialists, with their belief in planning and their readiness to put the state in a position of power over the individual, were receptive to the eugenic message. Breeding, too, was ripe for nationalisation.

So who stopped the socialists? Not the conservatives. Arthur Balfour chaired the first International Eugenics Congress in London in 1912; the sponsoring vice-presidents included the Lord Chief Justice and Winston Churchill. In 1911 the Oxford Union approved the principles of eugenics by nearly two to one. Eugenics was seen by empire unionists as an essential weapon in the battle to retain imperial supremacy and head off the threat from Germany. The poor condition of Boer War recruits to the army stimulated as much debate about better breeding as it did about better welfare. As Churchill put it, "the multiplication of the feeble-minded" was "a very terrible danger to the race."

To be sure, there were a few voices of dissent. William Bateson was a geneticist who opposed all eugenic policies from the beginning. And one or two intellectuals remained suspicious, among them Hilaire Belloc and GK Chesterton, who wrote that "eugenicists had discovered how to combine hardening of the heart with softening of the head."

But in general, in the early years of this century, eugenics was a kind of cult conventional wisdom. Scepticism was seen as squeamishness, opposition as suspiciously unsound. The degeneration of the race was taken as fact; the need for urgent action as proven. (As Terence Kealey has pointed out, it was not unlike the present enthusiasm for urgent preventive action to head off man-made climate change. As before, those who stress uncertainties are shouted down.) The name Eugene was suddenly in vogue and there was a groundswell of fascination with planned breeding. Pearson wrote to Galton in 1907: "I hear most respectable middle-class matrons saying, if children are weakly, 'Ah, but that was not a eugenic marriage!'"

Britain very nearly did pass eugenic laws. In 1904 the government set up a Royal Commission. When it reported, in 1908, it took a strongly hereditarian view of mental deficiency-not surprising, given that many of its members were convinced eugenists. As Gerry Anderson has shown in a recent Cambridge thesis, there followed a period of sustained lobbying by pressure groups to try to persuade the government to act. The Home Office received hundreds of resolutions from county and borough councils and from education committees, urging the passage of a bill which would restrict reproduction by the "unfit."

For a while nothing happened. The home secretary, Herbert Gladstone, was unsympathetic. But when he was replaced by Winston Churchill in 1910, eugenics at last had a champion at the cabinet table. In December 1910 Churchill wrote to the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, advocating urgent eugenic legislation: "I feel that the source from which the stream of madness is fed should be cut off and sealed up before another year has passed." Lest there be any doubt about what he meant, Wilfred Scawen Blunt wrote that Churchill was already privately advocating the use of X-rays and operations to sterilise the mentally unfit.

The constitutional crises of 1910 and 1911 prevented Churchill introducing a bill and he moved on to the Admiralty. But by 1912 the clamour for legislation had revived and a Tory backbencher, Gershom Stewart, introduced his own private member's bill. In 1912 the new home secretary, Reginald McKenna, reluctantly introduced the Mental Deficiency Bill. Although it was not prompted by eugenic concerns alone, and did not contain a compulsory sterilisation clause, this was the critical moment. The bill would restrict procreation by the feeble-minded and would punish those who married mental defectives. It was an open secret that it could be amended to allow compulsory sterilisation as soon as practicable.

One man deserves to be singled out for mounting opposition to this bill: a radical libertarian MP with the famous-and relevant-name of Josiah Wedgwood. He was a naval architect by profession; scion of the famous industrial family which had repeatedly intermarried with the Darwin family (for several decades the two families were probably the richest in the West Midlands). Charles Darwin had a grandfather, a father-in-law and a brother-in-law (twice over) each called Josiah Wedgwood. But while some of the Darwins eagerly embraced eugenics-Charles Darwin's son, Leonard, was president of the Eugenics Society-Josiah Wedgwood disliked it intensely. Elected to parliament in the Liberal landslide of 1906, he had later joined the Labour party and retired to the House of Lords in 1942.

He charged that the Eugenics Society was trying "to breed up the working class as though they were cattle" and he asserted that the laws of heredity were "too undetermined for one to pin faith on any doctrine, much less to legislate according to it." But his main objection was on the grounds of individual liberty. He was appalled by a bill which gave the state powers to take a child from its home by force, by clauses which granted policemen the duty to act on reports from members of the public that somebody was "feeble-minded" and by the creation of yet more state-empowered enforcers: "We shall soon all be wearing a uniform and receiving a salary, and there will be no one to pay the salary." His motive was not social justice but individual liberty: he was joined by Tory libertarians such as Lord Robert Cecil. Their common cause was that of the individual against the state.

The clause which stuck in Wedgwood's throat was that which stated it to be "desirable in the interests of the community that [the feeble-minded] should be deprived of the opportunity of procreating children." This was, in Wedgwood's words, "the most abominable thing ever suggested" and not "the care for the liberty of the subject and for the protection of the individual against the state that we have a right to expect from a Liberal administration."

Wedgwood's attack was so effective that the government withdrew the bill and presented it again the next year in much watered-down form. Crucially, it now omitted "any reference to what might be regarded as the eugenic idea," and the offensive clauses regulating marriage and preventing procreation were dropped. Wedgwood still opposed the bill. For two whole nights, fuelled by bars of chocolate, he sustained his attack by tabling more than 200 amendments. But when his support had dwindled to four members, he gave up and the bill passed into law.

Wedgwood probably thought he had failed. The forcible committal of mental patients became a feature of British life and this, in practice, did make it hard for them to breed. But in truth he had not only prevented explicitly eugenic measures being adopted; he had also sent a warning shot across the bows of any future government that eugenic legislation would be contentious. And he had identified the central flaw in the whole eugenic project. This was not that it was based on faulty science, nor that it was impractical, though both of these were true; but that it was oppressive and cruel because it required the full power of the state to be asserted over the rights of the individual.

Karl Pearson said, in answer to Wedgwood: "What is social is right, and there is no definition of right beyond that." This view did not prevail, thanks to old-fashioned Victorian individual libertarianism supported by a parliamentary democracy where truculent back-benchers could still make a difference.

British eugenics faded in popularity during and after the first world war, the period when it gathered steam in the US. In 1924, in Buck v Bell, a court ruled that the commonwealth of Virginia could sterilise Carrie Buck, a 17-year-old girl committed to a colony for epileptics and the feeble-minded in Lynchburg, where she lived with her mother, Emma, and her daughter, Vivian. After a cursory examination, Vivian, who was seven months old, was declared an imbecile and Carrie was ordered to be sterilised. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it: "Three generations of imbeciles are enough." Vivian died young, but Carrie survived into old age, a respectable woman of moderate intelligence who enjoyed crossword puzzles.

In the US, however, eugenics was sustained by anti-immigrant prejudice. It was a convenient cover for those who wished to restrict immigration and prevent the dilution of Anglo-Saxon blood, or who wanted to oppress blacks. With low immigration rates in the 1920s, Britain lacked this motivation.

Yet in the early 1930s, as unemployment rose during the recession, eugenics experienced a revival. In Britain the membership of eugenic societies reached record levels, as people began to blame high unemployment and poverty on the racial degeneration which had been predicted by the first eugenists. It was then that most countries passed their eugenic laws. Sweden, for example, passed its compulsory sterilisation law in 1934, a year after Germany.

Britain did not. Wedgwood was still an MP, having served briefly in the cabinet in 1924, so perhaps he helped to deter legislation. In any event, the National government showed a reluctance to court controversy of any kind. But, outside parliament, opposition came from a different source. Because of the blatant class prejudice of many eugenic enthusiasts, much of the political left was now anti-eugenic. Furthermore, many scientists changed their minds in the early 1930s, notably JBS Haldane. This partly reflected the growing influence of environmental explanations of human nature, promulgated by people such as Margaret Mead and the behaviourists in psychology. Throughout the 1930s, the weight of opinion in science grew steadily more sceptical towards eugenics.

today, galton's conviction that much of human nature has a hereditary element is back in fashion, this time with better-although not conclusive-empirical evidence. Intelligence, for example, turns out to be roughly 50 per cent heritable, however you design the experiments or do the sums. There is little doubt that eugenic breeding would "work" for human beings just as it works for dogs and cattle. But there is also little doubt that it could only be done very slowly, at a terrible cost in cruelty and injustice.

Increasingly, genetic screening allows parents to choose the genetic recipe for their children. They can reject disabling forms of genetic condition by aborting foetuses which carry a certain gene. To some parents, who have had to rear and then prematurely bury a severely disabled child, this is a blessing which enables them to have another child in the assurance that it will not suffer. But to other people, including many disabled activists, this is a revival of eugenics and a devaluation of disabled life. In his book, The Lives to Come, the philosopher Philip Kitcher calls genetic screening "voluntary eugenics." "Positively" screening for special ability, rather than "negatively" for inherited disease, may not be far away.

Have we rejected state eugenics merely to allow private eugenics? Parents may come under all kinds of pressure to adopt voluntary eugenics, from doctors, health insurance companies and the culture at large. But if government were to ban genetic screening on the grounds that it might be abused, the quantity of suffering in the world would increase.

There is a big difference between genetic screening and what the eugenists wanted in their heyday. Genetic screening is about giving private individuals private choices on private criteria. Eugenics was about nationalising that decision; to make people breed not for themselves but for the state. It is a distinction overlooked in the rush to define what "we" must allow in the new genetic world. Who is we? We as individuals, or we as the collective interest of the state or the race?

Compare two examples of eugenics as practised today. In the US the Committee for the Prevention of Jewish Genetic Disease organises the testing of schoolchildren's blood. When matchmakers are later considering a marriage between two people, they can call a hotline and quote the two anonymous numbers assigned at the testing. If both are carriers of the same mutation, for Tay-Sachs disease or cystic fibrosis, the committee advises against marriage. The results of this entirely voluntary policy-criticised in 1993 by the New York Times as eugenic-are impressive. Cystic fibrosis has been virtually eliminated among American Jews.

The other example comes from China, whose government continues to sterilise and abort on eugenic grounds. Chen Minzhang, minister of health, expostulated that this was justified because births of "inferior quality" are serious among "the old revolutionary base, ethnic minorities, the frontier and economically poor areas." (The 18th International Congress of Genetics will meet in Beijing this year-having agreed in advance not to criticise Chinese eugenics.)

Many modern accounts of the history of eugenics present it as an example of the dangers of science out of control. It is much more an example of the danger in allowing the state to run out of control. Eugenics is first an issue of individual liberty. Only then is it an issue of science. Josiah Wedgwood understood that.