A few considerations on ancient and modern eugenics

- Sci. res. Oana Iftime

Member of the Romanian UNESCO Committee on Bioethics

Department of Genetics, Faculty of Biology

University of Bucharest, Romania

Email: oana@botanic.unibuc.ro

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 13 (2003), 221-3.
Even though it has become of general interest in recent times, especially due to Nazi practices, eugenics is far from a modern invention. Humankind has shown such preoccupations since Antiquity, if not earlier. Ancient Greeks, namely Spartans will always remain a most adequate example of eugenic baby killers. Their principles and procedures were well known- no one showing birth defects must survive; therefore he/she should be thrown off the cliffs. In those times, Spartans showed no embarrassment in having such an original pit at the periphery of their city, reserved for the disposal of "human garbage". It was a time of cruelty or of sincerity? I wonder.

How can a society be characterized that is continuously monitoring the new lives emerging in its yard, in order to promptly eliminate any undesirable? The Spartan criteria of undesirability were quite practical. Malformed people could not serve their own interests and, showing even more bad taste, could not serve the interests of the community. So, they had to perish, as the community did not urge to switch places and serve the interests of such "useless" citizens.

Romans were quite comfortable with abortion and baby killing. Even healthy but "inopportune" babies, such as the ones resulted from "professional" relations between prostitutes and their clients were left to die at the garbage pit.

Archaeological investigations showed that in Roman bordellos special "baby disposal" facilities were available. When specialists first discovered such a facility, they suspected that they have found an ordinary water well, to which it resembled, at first glance. At second glance, to say so, the archaeologists became horrified. The "well" contained dozens of little skeletons, most likely the remains of the undesired babies born by prostitutes in the ancient bordello where the well was discovered. Roman society, similarly to its illustrious Spartan precedent had to be protected from the invasion of unwanted citizens.

The age of mercy-towards-the-society-killing should have come to an end in many parts of the world, once Christianity became widespread. Christianity teaches that malformed people are, first and most important of all, people, that all human beings are equal in humanness in God's eyes and should be so in the eyes of their neighbor, too. The malformed have to be regarded with compassion and helped in their difficult journey through this life, as they are no better or evil than "normal" people, sharing God's love and being called to redemption as anyone else does. Crimes against unwanted people are regarded as abominable for a few strong reasons:

- God only gives life and we have no right to end it;

- no existence is useless, God left us all here with a purpose;

- all people are equal in humanness, we cannot discriminate between higher and lesser quality "human products" deciding, on such basis, who has or has not the right to live among us;

- we owe mercy to the less fortunate, not cruelty.

This new perspective of the human being, its particular and social life desperately tried but only feebly managed to reduce the overall quantity of violence and cruelty in the society. In spite of those generous ideas, crimes continued. Crimes of every sort, even religious crimes, that came to contradict the very spirit of the religion in which's name were committed. People went to war, committed violence and killed each other, eventually asking, prior to that, the help of a God that clearly disapproved such manifestations. They generally continued to commit each and every possible sin, killing comprised.

Here comes the major difference between ancient and Christian societies- such despicable acts of dumping babies into pits are not encouraged in Christianity, no matter the alleged reason. They are qualified as sins and those who commit them should expect to be punished for their "achievements", as they freely chosen to collaborate with the devil in destroying the order of the existence as it has been established by God.

Middle Age people were torn between Christian teaching assuring them that malformed were not evil and ancient, nebulous superstitions telling them the opposite.

Orthodox Christianity teaches that people showing birth defects are not devil's but God's creation, as we all are. Devil has not the power to give life, but he loves to interfere, when possible, and mess up God's creation. The occasion for such mess- ups is offered to him by people sinning and therefore managing to weaken the liaison between them and their Creator, alienating themselves from God and getting closer to the devil. Such being the case, deficiencies, as any other illness may be caused by the negative impact of the sins of the ancestors, but the one that bears them has no guilt, no inborn "evil touch" in his or her soul and must be regarded as God's beloved creation, as any other man or woman. Ill people have all the chances to redemption if they bear their sufferance with dignity, not "quarrelling" with God on the false issue of Him being unfair and making them ill for cruel.

From all those theses, some learned only the part with the devil interfering with God's creation, consequently regarding people with deficiencies as evil monsters. However, eugenic crime was not common nor an encouraged practice but a sin, when incidentally committed.

Time has passed and the society came to manifest a totally strange tendency to reject its own once most dear values, such as the belief in God. Many regard l'epoque de la lumiere, with the Philosopher grimly proclaiming God as an "unnecessary hypothesis" as the time when humankind began "to free" itself from "the tyranny" of religious beliefs.

The surprise came when people, trying to throw away their religion, as being dusty and not suitable for modern human beings managed to do that better than expected, audaciously getting rid of the whole package, moral principles included. Society tried to keep those rules, apart from their source, in the previously established form of civil law as well as in the form of social principles that call people to tolerance, kindness and good deeds- the same old Christian story, but with incomparable less success. Religion urges the individual to contemplate perspective of an eternal life that he may spend in happiness or in pain, depending on how good or bad he/she used to be in this life. The cold moral law of "peaceful" systems propagate seems not to be able to sufficiently motivate people in order to respect moral values.

Consequently, at some point, people have found, once again, themselves comfortable with the idea of eugenics. As a major irony, bearing the unmistakable signature of the devil himself, as would a common sensed Christian say, the practice of eugenics became more refined.

Not only had those with birth defects found themselves menaced in the civilized societies of Europe and America. New criteria emerged, apart from the ancient ones that were, at their turn, remembered with joy.

In the beginning of the twentieth century, when we would have expected mankind to behave itself, given the progress of science and civilization, generally speaking, eugenics lived its superb renewal. The USA had been adopting eugenic laws for a few decades, the first step having been done in 1907. Till 1927, sixteen American states have adopted laws enforcing sterilization as an eugenic practice intended to deprive "undesirable citizens" of the possibility to perpetuate their undesirability in society. A report that the American Society of Neurology issued in 1936 informs us that at that time 36 of the American States (more than half of the confederation!) had sterilization laws included in their legislation.

The explosion of this peculiar kind of legislation relied upon a 1927 decision of the Supreme Court of the United States that was intended to tame the scruples regarding such inhumane practice. The decision stated that sterilization was not an unusual, cruel form of punishment and that federal states should feel free to adopt eugenic laws.

Who was to be sterilized? Besides the traditional victims, namely people with disabilities, sterilization was to be applied to alcoholics, criminals and even...the poor. I can understand (it is a way of speaking...) how all those pseudoscientific ideas in vogue back then such as drinking problems and criminal tendencies being hereditary led to such aberrations, but to sterilize the poor! As far as I know, no one ever sustained that being broke was a disease and even more, a hereditary one!

The eugenic laws continued to be present in the American legislation up to the sixties, twenty year after the Nazi display of inhumanity. Other democratic states than U.S.A., like Canada, Switzerland, Sweden, for example, also adopted such despicable legislative aberrations. The Canadian one also precedes, as in the case of its neighbor, the United States of America, the Nazi abuses. Alberta Sterilization Act that justified the physical and psychic mutilation of 2822 people was adopted in 1928 and it was abrogated only in 1972.

A sterilization eugenic law was elaborated in South Africa, in 1975, the most recent eugenic act being, however, the law that China adopted in 1994 aiming to "improve the quality of newborn". In 1975 South Africa and in 1994 China at least were known to have problems with understanding the fundamentals of human rights, but, as we could see, eugenic legislation was first elaborated, in a time when mankind claimed to be illuminated by science and progress by countries that love to be regarded as models of democracy and humanism.

As for the Nazi example, yes, it is awful in its methods and extent. But I found it deeply unfair, to cite Nazi Germany as the sole example of organized criminal madness reinforced by the state in modern times. The other above cited "eugenistic eccentrics" should be included aside Nazi Germany into the modern bestiality hall of fame.

The Nazis were terribly efficient. Their eugenic plans were grandiose, aiming the extermination of whole human races. Their methods were diverse and their capacity of scheduling their movements outstanding. They were developing a particular art of killing and applied it on millions of people. They were horrendous. About 400.000 women and men were victims of the Nazi forced sterilization policy, instarured through the Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Disease in Posterity from 1933.

The democratic eugenic amateurs did not display such imagination or force. They killed only thousands of people. But they were equally horrendous, in my opinion. I wonder what all those innocent people thought, when condemned to sterilization, that was "not a cruel or unusual way of punishment" consisting of mutilation and having as consequences a permanent disability as well as the minor detail of the disappearance of the condemned's kin, in times of peace, in countries pretending to be among the most civilized in the world. What did they feel, when the doctors (or should I call them "modern highly qualified executioners"?) carried the sentence to execution, somewhere, in the middle of a city where the others, the desirable citizens, were serenely minding their own everyday business?

In 1994, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a resolution against procedures conducted with the aim to prejudice human reproductive capacities. It may sound unbelievable, but after all that pain and strive to get rid of such shameful practices one can still hear voices wondering if not claiming that the society should contemplate the perspective of sterilizing handicapped people. I also bear in mind a recent attempt that was made in Columbia to impose the sterilization of the poor. It is true that the reactions were of very strong opposition so that the politician that dared to make such a proposal had to leave the room in shame.

Of course, the sterilization of the handicapped would be "mercy- sterilizing", as it intends to protect them, especially women of unpleasant events such as perpetuating their imperfect kin. Some say that even if the baby was normal, the mother would not be fit to take care of it. Those prejudices took a serious bump when recently conducted studies were published, revealing that handicapped woman sometimes take better care of their little ones than normal people, this being their only way to self esteem and social achievement.

The nightmare continues: the United Nations were accused of (involuntary) financing sterilization of the poor in Peru. What next?

Don't we ever learn our lessons? When will people understand that life is not in their power and that things manifest the disagreeable tendency to be much more complex that they may seem at first sight?

I wish for the future of humankind that the reckless urge to be the judges of other's right to life to be manifested by lesser and lesser people. Then, when such tendencies would be almost extinct I should take into consideration the idea of regarding myself as part of a great civilization, but I doubt that I will live that long, even though I am still young.


1. Dealing with the Forced Sterilization of the Mentally Challenged : About Eve. Prince Edward Island October 23, 1986 (site of the Canadian Department of Justice) http://canada.justice.gc.ca/en/justice2000/119mile.html

2.              Forced sterilization and eugenics in California // editorial by Alexandra Minna Stern - Assistant Professor of History, UC Santa Cruz


3. Forced sterilization, further assassinations and mass dying.54 Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Disease in Posterity. Dated 14th July 1933. Official gazette of the Third Reich announcing new laws No. 86/part I.

http://www.chgs.umn.edu/Histories__Narratives__Documen/Hadamar/The_Occurrence/Forced_sterilization__further_/forced_sterilization__further_.html (site of The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota)

4.              Forced abortion and sterilization in China: the view from the inside. Hearing before the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights of the Committee on International Relations House of Representatives One hundred fifth congress Second session June 10, 1998

http://commdocs.house.gov/committees/intlrel/hfa49740.000/hfa49740_0f.htm (site of the U.S.A. Committee on International Relations House of Representatives)

5.         Forced Sterilization (site of Webster University, St. Louis, MO, U.S.A) http://www.webster.edu/~woolflm/forcedsterilization.html

6.         The Sterilization of America: A Cautionary History

http://www.cfif.org/htdocs/freedomline/current/in_our_opinion/un_sterile_past.html (site of the the Center for Individual Freedom, U.S.A.)

7.         Research Confirms Forced Abortions, Sterilizations in China and Peru by Paul Nowak LifeNews.com Staff Writer July 7, 2003
http://www.prolifeinfo.com/intl10.html (site of LifeNews.com)

8.         U.N. Complicit in Forced Sterilizations


9.         Oregon Apologizes For Sterilizations

10. California Governor Apologizes for Eugenics Law Source: San Francisco Chronicle, 3/12/03


11. Sweden to Investigate Forced Sterilizations (c)1997 Reuter Information Service (webpage of the Institute for the Study of Academic Racism, hosted by Ferris State University, Michigan, U.S.A.)


12.      Decision of the Federal Court of Canada in the case Jin Xiang Yang vs. the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration


13.      Sterilization of Minors With Developmental Disabilities (RE9849) Policy Statement of the American Academy of Pediatrics- Committee on Bioethics, Pediatrics, Volume 104, Number 2, August 1999, pp 337-340

http://www.aap.org/policy/re9849.html (official site of the American Asociation of Pediatrics)

14.      Sterilization: Implications for mentally retarded and mentally ill- Comments on the Canadian Law Reform Commission's working paper 1983 (site of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association)

15. Opinion on the contraception for the mentally handicapped. Report. April 3, 1996 (site du Comité Consultatif National d'Ethique pour les sciences de la vie et de la santé, France).


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