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 Commonsby Matt Ridley / August 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
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…