A few considerations on ancient and
- Sci. res. Oana Iftime
Member of the Romanian UNESCO Committee on Bioethics
Department of Genetics, Faculty of Biology
University of Bucharest, Romania
Email: firstname.lastname@example.orgEubios 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.
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
- 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
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
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
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
Forced sterilization and eugenics in California //
editorial by Alexandra Minna Stern -
Assistant Professor of History, UC Santa Cruz
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.
(site of The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of
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
(site of the U.S.A. Committee on International Relations House of
Forced Sterilization (site of Webster University, St.
Louis, MO, U.S.A) http://www.webster.edu/~woolflm/forcedsterilization.html
The Sterilization of America: A Cautionary History
(site of the the Center for Individual Freedom, U.S.A.)
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)
U.N. Complicit in Forced Sterilizations
Oregon Apologizes For Sterilizations
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,
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Federal Court of Canada in the case Jin Xiang Yang vs. the Minister of
Citizenship and Immigration
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
(official site of the American Asociation of Pediatrics)
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
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