7. Pre-marital Health Checks and the Eugenic Divorce

Earlier this week, in addition to highly paid people punching less highly paid people, the BBC published the following story: “Genetic tests lead to 165,000 break-ups.” I begin by omitting the country of reference (skip to end for spoiler). Certainly, eighty years ago this could have been any number of countries, with respective eugenics movements at their respective height(s) in America, Sweden, Canada, Denmark, the UK and of course Germany, to name a few. While still classed as ‘negative eugenics’ (i.e. preventing ‘unfavourable’ births), pre-marital health examinations were seen as more ‘humane’ than sterilization and, certainly, euthanasia for the so-called ‘unfit’/’racially impure’/’degenerate’. The Eugenics Record Office in America, for example, promoted the use of certificates such as this:


As late as the 1960s, the importance of premarital health tests and their entrenchment in the popular mindset can be observed in films such as The Graduate. When a young Dustin Hoffman decides that he is in fact in love with Miss Robinson (and not Mrs) one of the first things he says is “We’ll get the blood test tomorrow”. Presumably syphilis free, they lived ‘happily ever after’:

Notably, such tests were only recently abandoned by the majority of American states.

Before the Second World War, the religious influence on popular attitudes to marriage and divorce cannot be understated. ‘Religion’ was central to the way the ‘masses’ viewed family life. In some areas of the world, this remained so long after the Second World War and continues today. While divorce, though still contentious, is a widely accepted practice in much of the western world, this has not always been the case.

In inter-war Britain, some eugenicists saw pre-marital health checks as a means to avoid divorce, something seen as disastrous both socially and religiously. In many cases though, the couple had been long married – and often had children – when apparent genetically incompatibilities emerged, which could manifest in the child’s ability at school or, for example, insanity developing in the husband later in life. The 1930s saw a lobbying process led by A.P. Herbert (1890-1971), which looked to provide additional grounds that could warrant a divorce (at the time it could only be granted for adultery and still heavily favoured men), including drunkenness, insanity and desertion. This was eventually passed in 1937.

Remarkably, one of the earlier campaigners for divorce reform was the Bishop of Birmingham himself, E.W. Barnes. In the 1930s, if Barnes wasn’t lecturing middle-class newlyweds – immediately after their wedding ceremony (!) – on the importance of ‘good stocks’ having large families, he was arguing in favour of divorce, generally for the working class, on eugenic grounds. In a 1932 private letter to the Bishop of Chichester, George Bell (1883-1958), he confessed that such guidance could only be provided “from a family physician acquainted through his private practice with the physical grounds which normally lead to unhappiness in marriage; and also the technical knowledge as to the inheritance of dysgenic qualities which only an expert on human heredity can give.” Barnes was appointed to the Anglican Church’s Joint Committee on Marriage and Divorce where, as his biographer noted he “made it his special task to ensure that the Committee was provided with expert advice on the eugenic aspects, as they affected not only the merits of a marriage before it took place but also on the grounds on which it might eventually be dissolved.” Amazingly, in its attempt to accommodate the latest scientific theories in an all encompassing verdict for divorce, the Church did, in fact, appoint several ‘eugenic advisers’ from the British Eugenics Society, including its secretary C.P. Blacker. Barnes’ suggestion for the approval of eugenic divorces was not included in the final report of the Convocation (1935). However, as we shall see, it remains pertinent.

The BBC article that began this post was referring to present-day Saudi Arabia. Currently, in Saudi Arabia the divorce rate is very high and one may argue, heavily favours men (also in line with religious doctrine they can marry up to four women at once). While women must have consent from the husband or proof of bodily harm, the husband can divorce a wife at any time without cause. Do pre-marital genetic tests provide Saudi women with more freedom or increase their subjection?

Around 60% of Saudi couples break off their engagements after receiving their test results.

Around 60% of Saudi couples break off their engagements after receiving their test results.

According to one Riyadh-based scientist, Saudi Arabia has “one of the highest rates of genetic diseases in the world.” In an attempt by the state to prevent the long-standing custom of marriages between close relatives and the prevention of transmissible diseases such as HIV and sickle-cell anaemia, pre-marital genetic tests are mandatory. This widespread use of genetic testing will certainly be called ‘eugenic’ and is comparable – in practice – to many of the less-developed techniques and theories used by eugenicists in the twentieth century. As indicated in the abovementioned 1932 letter, this is certainly what eugenicists like Barnes spent their lifetimes advocating (in Britain with little success). However, with the primary aim being to prevent the inheritance of genetic illness rather than actively improve the human race, and further evolution itself, I feel inclined to stop short of labelling the Saudi genetic tests as eugenic in their intent. Will this law be adopted in other countries? Does the influence of genetics on family life and family planning mean a resurgence of eugenics is imminent? If we are not currently concerned about the future of human evolution, as eugenicists once were, should we be?


‘Saudi Arabia: Genetic tests lead to 165,000 breakups,’ BBC News (25 March 2015) [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-news-from-elsewhere-32050313]

John Barnes, Ahead of His Age: Bishop Barnes of Birmingham (London: Collins, 1979), 326-7.

Ernest W. Barnes, ‘Letter to Bell RE: Divorce,’ (1 January 1932), The Papers of Ernest William Barnes 9/17/16, University of Birmingham.


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