“Call me cynical, but wasn’t Adolf Hitler up for sterilizing minorities?” This comment in reaction to a 2010 Daily Mail article on the sterilization of drug addicts was ‘disliked’ by 43 people. Is it right to dismiss sterilization because it was used in Nazi Germany in an attempt to create Hitler’s eugenic utopia?
Project Prevention (1997- ) is a US charity dedicated to preventing drug addicts from having children. In 2010, it gained substantial media coverage for its work in Britain, including interviews on BBC Radio 4 and a nationally televised documentary, ‘Sterilising the Addicts’ (2010). 801 comments were posted below the BBC article ‘Charity offers UK drug addicts £200 to be sterilized’. Many of which were negative with the link to Nazi Germany unavoidable: “I seem to remember a similar programme of sterilizing the undeserving and undesirables back in the 1930s. It did not end well.” However, this guilty by association mentality brushes over many of the issues. Eugenics was primarily concerned with furthering human evolution. Though accused by some of coercion and exploitation of the ‘weak’, is Project Prevention actually eugenic in intent? Arguably the main intention of the charity is to prevent child abuse or neglect rather than improve the ‘race’. Almost seventy years after the Holocaust ended, we again ask the question, should everyone be allowed to reproduce?
In 2010, one BBC reader commented in support of Project Prevention, “[t]he addiction is due to their problems or lifestyle choices and subjecting any child to this is nothing less than abuse.” Another agreed that it “could be a way of curtailing this growing problem for our next generation” (BBC News, October 17, 2010). The Daily Mail even took a poll asking “Should drug addicts be paid to get sterilised”, with the results indicating an even divide of opinion: 53% Yes and 47% No. More recently, however, the founder/director Barbara Harris has lamented the fact that it can no longer pay British addicts to be sterilized, due to overwhelming opposition from the British Medical Association, which questioned the permanent nature of the procedures used. While practical considerations such as this should perhaps be the main considerations, many also drew comparisons with the eugenics movement.
In 1934, the British Eugenics Society recommended to parliament that the ‘mentally defective’, those with a transmissible physical disability, and those likely to transmit a mental defect or disorder should be sterilized. However, Nazi compulsory sterilization (1933-1945) was largely recognized in Britain as an overtly racist violation of human rights and parliament concluded that the legalization of sterilization had dangerous political overtones and the plan was dismissed. Although the Third Reich received condemnation in Britain and elsewhere there were many who continued to support the ideals of eugenics, and called the German experience a “disastrous development with its unrealistic ideas of superman and worthless racial elements, a development which ended in catastrophe”.
Immediately after the war, letters to The Times editor, described Germany’s “sadistic cruelties” and “bestial atrocities” suggesting there was no rational basis for the Holocaust. Was the main difference between the British and German campaigns for eugenic sterilization legislative success or ideology? Arguably, both the British and German examples essentially shared the same ideological blueprint and intended to remove inferior strains of the population as if a gangrenous limb in order to further human evolution.
Either way, today the word ‘eugenics’ still conjures images such as this:
Is this the case for sterilization? Should we discount the sterilization of drug addicts today because of how the procedure was abused in the past? Whether or not sterilization will or should be used as a ‘permanent contraceptive’ for drug addicts, the intrinsic link with past atrocities is unavoidable.
With over 2000 babies born each year to addicts, many support Project Prevention, with the charity receiving half a million dollars per year in donations. Barbara Harris told the Daily Mail in 2010 that while her critics were “calling me Hitler”, for her the only concern was “preventing child abuse.” While some have accused Harris of bribery, the addicts themselves often agree with her philosophy. Before being sterilized, the first British client of Project Prevention, a man named John, who had been addicted to opiates for 15 years, commented that “I won’t be able to support a kid. I can just about manage to support myself”.
T. Kemp, ‘Genetic Hygiene Experience in Denmark in Recent Years’, The Eugenics Review, VOL. XLIX, No. 1, (April, 1957): 11.
The ‘Letters to the Editor’ sections of The Times from April 21-23, 1945 give good indication of initial public reaction to the Holocaust e.g. J. Duncan, ‘Germany And The Camps: Making The Truth Known’, The Times, 50124 (April 23, 1945); and 5; S. King-Hall, “German Crimes: The Parliamentary Delegation”, The Times, 50123 (April 21, 1945): 5.
‘Have Your Say: Should addicts be encouraged to be sterilised?’, BBC News, [http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/haveyoursay/2010/10/should_addicts_be_encouraged_t.html?page=1#comments] .