14. History of Race and Eugenics (HRE) seminar series Feb-May 2017

Between February and May at Oxford Brookes University, I ran History of Race and Eugenics (HRE): Series 1. Featuring 7 different talks on Friday evenings at 5, this involved a 15-minute presentation, followed by 45 minutes of discussion. It is a fantastic format, which helped attendees expand their understanding of the history of race and eugenics in a relatively informal setting. Each week offered a welcome chance to build working relationships and meet and socialise with new people. The talks, listed as follows, emphasised the contemporary relevance of HRE, be it a new research idea, book launch or potential funding app:

  • Patrick Merricks: “Trump and Immigration in Historical Perspective”
  • David Redvaldsen: “British Eugenics and Utopia”
  • Marius Turda: “The History of Eugenics in East-Central Europe, 1900-1945 (book launch)”
  • Ross Brooks: “Julian Huxley on the Biology of Sex”
  • Simon Wilson: “Eugenics and Culture in Interwar Britain”
  • Aisling Shalvey: “Theories of Mental Degeneration in British Eugenics, 1900-1950”
  • Tudor Georgescu: “Eugenics: The history of breeding better people in 100 objects (funding app)”

Those who attended were from a range of backgrounds, including students (undergraduate and postgraduate), as well as teaching and administrative staff, which certainly enriched the conversation with energetic debates that ensued after each paper.


First paper: the shared opinions of modern politicians and American eugenicists in the 1900s

A clear impact was the quality of work produced by the students working on related topics, many of whom actively took part. Elsewhere, I implemented some of the conclusions into my own teaching in the second-year lecture ‘Case Studies in Eugenics’ for the Crisis of the West module.

As well as an average attendance of 10 people, the seminars had great exposure on twitter and was retweeted by Brookes staff and students and respected academics and public figures outside of the university. Building on this success, Series 2 will start in October during Week 1 of the 2017-2018 academic year. We begin with the launch of my book, Religion and Racial Progress in Twentieth-Century Britain: Bishop Barnes of Birmingham. If you’d like to present a paper at HRE please get in touch.

13. REVIEW: Aman, Michael and Balis, Andrea (2013) “The race race: assimilation in America”, Teaching in Higher Education Vol. 18, No. 6, 587-595.

This fascinating article is written by two New York Professors of apparently different disciplines – Law and General Education. The authors document their transdisciplinary approach to teaching students in a “large public urban college in New York City with a diverse population” about ‘race’.


1961, University of Georgia anti-integration protest

I chose the article because the historical concept of ‘race’ in its various manifestations plays an important role in most aspects of my teaching – modern history of ideas – and my area of expertise in research – the British eugenics movement.  

It is emphasised from the beginning that any attempts to define ‘race’ – a historically malleable social construct – end in ambivalence and more questions than answers. This is not a bad thing, and leads to fascinating and engaging debates between students, many of whom by the end of the course admit that it “changed the way I think”. Moreover, detailed study of how race has been defined in the past and how this can change depending on the society, cultural background, religion, time period, external events can lead to the individual student identifying and confronting their own often unconscious racial prejudices.

The main strategy used was primary document analysis, reflection and discussion – here referred to as “materials” from popular culture – using sources where race plays an important role. These include novels, plays, laws, music. One interesting method involved the students acting out the plays in the class. In one instance the class was shocked that a late-nineteenth century cartoon depicted an Irishman (rather than a Black American) as a monkey revealing that at the time rather than ‘white’, the Irish were seen as a different race and inferior (much like Italians, Chinese, albeit racially categorised in a variety of ways that also changed over time and depending on the particular society/state). Also like the 1961 picture above demonstrates, the way ‘race’ is understood can change depending on the national political conversations at the time (then McCarthyism portrayed Communism as the incarnation of evil, which influenced the language used by anti-integration protesters).

Although ‘race’ plays a far more prominent role in American society than in Britain, I found the article very useful. For my own specific subject area, I think it is important to engage directly with ‘race’ historically and (I have tried to emphasise in my own research!) highlight the importance to the development of modern society in the broad sense and its impact on individual cultures within this. Using a variety of sources that the class interact with and debate about made each week different and helped nurture graduate attributes beyond simply writing good assignments.

12. Race and the (EU) Referendum

On 5th July, graffiti was written on a health centre in Torquay that said ‘EU Rats Go Home Now’. This is one of 73 similar incidents reported in the news in the first two weeks after the referendum. The source was taken from the Institute of Race Relations, which describes the page as “an overview of racially motivated attacks and other incidents of harassment that have taken place since the Brexit result, which indicate the types of attacks taking place across the UK. But of course, this account is in no way exhaustive.”


Graffiti behind a war memorial in Portsmouth

The dust refuses to settle following Britain’s unexpected decision to leave the EU around a month ago. Half the country scratch their heads to figure out why and the other half – so it appears – got what they wanted. But what did they want?

I’m not saying that the Brexit leaders (now largely running the government) and voters are eugenicists i.e. wishing to take control of evolution by breeding an ethnically pure British master race. However, eugenicists in mid-twentieth century Britain did give stark warnings that restrictions on immigration were essential for the survival of Britain as a great nation, a belief shared by far-right elements of British politics today i.e. UKIP, Britain First et al.

In its 1950 Statement of Objects, the British Eugenics Society discussed immigration and its impact on the national gene pool: “Race mixture is a subject which excites strong feelings. Seemingly bad results are produced by the unstable environment of children who are exposed to contrasting cultural traditions and to hostile forces of prejudice; also by the fact that racially mixed marriages are not always contracted by the best representatives of either race.” Even the Bishop of Birmingham, E.W. Barnes, a lifelong eugenicist and moral pillar of the community warned of “the problem of undesirable immigration ” urging for a limit to be put on “the number of members of other races who come here [to Britain].”  Barnes’ opinions on racial differences and immigration were not met with any notable controversy. Would they be today in certain circles?

After the Second World War, the 1948 British Nationality Act had made it easier for citizens from the Commonwealth to come to Britain and begin a new life. However, public racial discrimination was not made illegal until the 1965 Race Relations Act. If racial tensions were building in Britain after 1945, they manifested themselves with the widespread race riots in East London and Notting Hill in the 1950s, in which minority populations were the targets of violent attacks. These became more widespread with the rise of groups such as the white-supremacist National Front from the 1970s. In the current climate, there is little preventing these views resurfacing in what historians may later term the ‘Age of Extremism’. Did they ever really disappear?

While the economic and political implications are not entirely clear (though many may disagree here), Brexit has in an instant tarnished Britain’s image as a progressive democracy. Of course, this image was rose tinted and of course, not all those who ‘voted out’ hold prejudiced beliefs concerning other cultures. There are numerous deplorable and brutal regimes worldwide that make post-Brexit Britain look pretty good by comparison. But maybe, ‘turning our backs’ on the European Union and applying inevitable restrictions on immigration – and various other similar and likely measures – will reinforce the bigoted beliefs of ‘Great’ Britain’s racists and xenophobes. Moreover, those in the closet on such issues may emerge now seemingly justified in their beliefs and those undecided will go with the general opinion (the 52%) – Britain is stronger as an independent entity: Britain should be put ‘First’.


‘Post-Brexit Racism’, Institute of Race Relations (7/7/2016) [http://www.irr.org.uk/news/post-brexit-racism/].

John Solomons, Race and Racism in Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003);

Robert Winder, Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration into Britain (London: Little Brown, 2003);

Richard C. Thurlow, Fascism in Britain: From Oswald Mosley’s Black shirts to the National Front (London: I.B. Taurus, 1998).

Carlos P. Blacker, Statement of Objects (London: Eugenics Society, 1950), 4.

Ernest W. Barnes, ‘The Mixing of Races and Social Decay,’ The Eugenics Review, 41, 1 (April, 1949), 11-16.

11. Sperm Banks and Selective Breeding

“Be special, give sperm” is the slogan of Britain’s largest sperm bank. However, it seems not everyone is suitable for this elite group of special sperm givers. The Guardian ran an article a couple of weeks ago on the ‘eugenic’ nature of the London Sperm Bank, which described “a policy of turning away autistic donors and those diagnosed with other neurological disabilities, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD], dyslexia and obsessive compulsive disorder.” What are the practical implications of such policies? Should there be legislation to prevent it? Is this ‘political correctness gone mad’ or our old ‘ally’ eugenics rearing its ugly head?


‘Be special, give sperm’ – London Underground ad

Measures against ‘genetic’ disease will always be associated with eugenics. That’s fair enough. In mid-twentieth century Britain, artificial insemination was put forward by eugenicist Herbert Brewer as a rational and efficient means of selective breeding. If used as the sole means of reproduction, it could at once ensure that the ‘fit’ were selected as donors and that the ‘unfit’ were ‘weeded out’. As a natural progression from late-nineteenth century Social Darwinism, eugenicists believed such techniques could be used to consciously guide human evolution. Artificial insemination was seen as a ‘humane’ alternative to negative eugenics e.g. the sterilization of hereditary ‘mental defectives’. Though such policies are largely associated with Nazi Germany and many US states, they were also taken into consideration by leading experts within the British Eugenics Society. According to Brewer, artificial insemination would “transform the problem of negative eugenics.” With regard to the prevalence of mental deficiency and other ‘latent’ defects, whereas “the elimination of such degeneracy by sterilizing” would be like “clearing a river of fish by catching the few which jump from the water,” artificial insemination would ensure that the “existence of the whole inextricable tangle of latent defect” would be swept out “in a few generations, replacing it concurrently with hereditary material of the highest excellence.”

Certainly after the Holocaust, sterilization was a no-go area for eugenicists. In 1950, the Eugenics Society secretary, Carlos Blacker described artificial insemination as having been “successfully used in cases when the male partner is at fault and also when, because of hereditary infirmities in himself or his family, he does not want children of his own.” It is often forgotten that Britain has this ‘eugenic’ past. In fact, the ‘runs in the family’/‘like-produces-like’ understanding of mental disorder was widely accepted in society. The Anglican Church even formed a committee to discuss the moral implications of artificial insemination. Having served on the committee along with Archbishop Fisher, the Bishops of Derby and Oxford and Carlos Blacker, Bishop Barnes of Birmingham was “convinced that artificial insemination, even by a donor, would be an inevitable and perhaps a desirable element in positive genetic engineering” and that soon a time would come “when the greatest geneticist will be accepted as one of the leading agents of Christian progress.” Thus, when artificial insemination was first ‘taking off’ many influential people, not to mention moral pillars of the community, were considering its eugenic benefits. Should we be surprised, then, that the legacy continues with Britain’s largest sperm bank ‘protecting’ future generations from disease?

Notably, the origins of such conditions are unclear and how we diagnose and define them varies greatly. Arguably, they are complex and multifactorial, as much to do with upbringing, life events and the epigenetic impact of the environment on gene behaviour as they are with what ‘runs in the family’. The policy is about as good an idea as the government using programmes of sterilization and euthanasia to try and prevent the spread of ‘feeble-mindedness’ – a catchall term from the early twentieth century based on biological determinism, which connected low IQ with heredity – in society (e.g. Germany, America, Scandinavia, Canada etc). In some countries, this went on until the 1970s! I’m looking at you, Sweden. In any case, other than possible ‘epigenetic trauma’, neither would have a noticeable impact on the genetic health of future populations.

If it were possible, is it even desirable to remove conditions like autism from the population? On behalf of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, Ari Ne’eman argues that “although some evidence suggests eliminating autism, dyslexia and other similar disabilities might remove valuable talents, along with impairments, this is not the primary reason to oppose the emerging eugenics. […] Many individuals who are today diagnosed with learning difficulties or intellectual disabilities would not have been considered such in a society before universal literacy, for example. Tomorrow’s social and technological progress may lead to still new disabilities, demonstrating that the quest to eliminate disability will always be a moving target. Such changes may leave humanity less equal, less diverse, and perhaps even less human.”

Can we call the policies of the London Sperm Bank ‘eugenic’ in intent? If so, should some form of state intervention put an end to it? Ne’eman concludes that “Regulators worldwide should curb eugenic practices. New instruments in international law may be necessary to ensure that ‘designer babies’ do not gain a national home, sparking medical tourism.” The UK government’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority are already investigating the sperm bank as we speak (or as I write/you read). Along with humanity’s shared chequered past regarding elimination and selective breeding, the subjective nature of our understanding of ‘disability’ is perhaps warning enough.


Herbert Brewer, ‘Eutelegenesis,’ The Eugenics Review 27, 2 (July 1935), 121.

‘Committee on Artificial Insemination: Draft Interim Report,’ (est. July 1945), The Papers of Ernest William Barnes, Special Collections Library, University of Birmingham, EWB 9/21/28.

Carlos P. Blacker, Statement of Objects (London: Eugenics Society, 1950), 8.

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

Ari Ne’eman, ‘Screening sperm donors for autism? As an autistic person, I know that’s the road to eugenics’, The Guardian (30 December 2015), [http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/30/screening-sperm-donors-autism-autistic-eugenics].

10. The End of China’s One-Child Policy

China’s one-child policy was officially introduced in 1980, among other things, to slow down the disastrous population growth encouraged by Chairman Mao in the 1950s and 1960s when the “potentially inexhaustible” creative and productive energies of the masses were central to the success of the Communist state (as seen in his Little Red Book (1964) – ask John McDonnell or George Osborne when they’re finished playing with it). Recently, China decided to end this and allow couples to have two children.


A propaganda poster for family planning in Communist China

The one-child policy has been widely associated with forced abortions, sterilisations and even infanticide. Many have heralded the decision as a “rare human rights victory in a country where freedoms are tightly restricted.” The cultural impact that this policy had on a generation of people is undeniable, in a country that now has 30 million more men than women – due to an age-old preference for male heirs – and widespread anxiety over marriage and family life. An article in The New York Times noted “for some of the more than 150 million young people who grew up as only children, the announcement has reawakened feelings of isolation and regret.” After experiencing the frenetic national obsession with match-making, by parents and children alike, Mei Fong concluded in The Guardian that the policy has had an “insidious impact, shaping how one-sixth of the world live, love and die.”

What does China’s decision mean for world population more broadly?

Way back in 1798, Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) argued that the “power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” For Malthus, the Earth could not sustain mankind’s increasing population – then at 1 billion – without the introduction of far-reaching policies to curb the increase. In the early twentieth century, the need to counter overpopulation was invariably tied with the push for increased education on birth control by groups such as the Malthusian League (1877-1927) and later Planned Parenthood (in existence under various names since 1916).

Opponents of (neo-)Malthusianism have argued that improved sanitary conditions, increased agricultural productivity and advances in modern medicine had made possible a new type of civilization that can support much larger populations than ever before. Elsewhere, as seen in Colorado last week, Planned Parenthood continues to experience violent opposition, usually from Christian fundamentalist groups who tend to view birth control and abortion as interfering with the sacred act of procreation and murder, respectively.

The world’s population has now passed 7 billion. A dramatic reduction in the global birth rate is seen as essential by many public figures and academics alike (e.g. the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation) to sustain human life in the long run. One contributor to this debate is Sarah Conly, Associate Professor in philosophy at Bowdoin College and author of One Child: Do We Have a Right to More (2015). Conly told the Boston Globe that “More people will mean more unsustainable resource use, worse climate change, and, eventually, wars over scarce goods or massive population displacement and migrations to places with remaining resources. Given the damage we are causing, and the suffering we foresee for all those who live after us, it is clear that having more than one child is just something that none of us — Chinese or American — has a moral right to do. We have no right to cause great harm to others when we can avoid this without great loss to ourselves.”

Unlike the Chinese example, for Conly this does not mean forced sterilisations and abortions: “Most of us do what is right because we think it’s right, not because we’re afraid of punishment. We think murder is wrong and so (most of us) don’t murder. The same could be true for limiting how many children we have.” Instead, a new culture should be established in which the public are educated about the environmental implications of large families, contraception is available to all and tax breaks reward smaller families and fines deter larger families “fixed on a sliding scale relative to income”.

Conly and others argue that such measures are essential to the future of humanity. However, they are certain to receive vehement criticism, ranging from the practicalities of their introduction to the moral questions surrounding state control and rights to parenthood. This criticism will come from politicians, fundamentalist groups and most importantly, large sectors of the general public. Significantly, though, as the population continues to grow at an exponential rate, this debate will only continue as the arguments from all sides grow louder.


Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (Oxford World’s Classics reprint, original publication: 1798), 13.

Sarah Conly, ‘Here’s why China’s one-child policy was a good thing,’ Boston Globe (31 October 2015), [https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2015/10/31/here-why-china-one-child-policy-was-good-thing/GY4XiQLeYfAZ8e8Y7yFycI/story.html].

Mei Fong, ‘China’s brutal one-child policy shaped how millions lived, loved and died’, The Guardian (1 November 2015), [http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/01/china-one-child-policy].

Javier C. Hernandez, ‘End of China’s One- Child Policy Stings Its ‘Loneliest Generation’, The New York Times (13 November 2015), [http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/14/world/asia/china-one-child-policy-loneliest-generation.html?_r=0].


9. Three-Person Babies: Eugenics Reborn(?)

“Eugenics is a dirty word, most commonly associated with racist profiling, or Nazi experiments. But the time has come to rethink our attitude.” So suggests Madhumita Murgia, writing for The Telegraph. How should we define eugenics? Is eugenics necessarily a bad thing because of its chequered past? Why now should we rethink one of the most controversial theories in modern history?

Well, after months of discussion in the government Houses and elsewhere, the UK is due to become the first country to legalise 3-parent IVF (in vitro fertilisation). Yes, (some) children of the future will be the product of – and have inherited – the genetic material from more than two people. Why? To prevent the inheritance of mitochondrial diseases, which include muscle wastage, diabetes, deafness and epilepsy. How does it work? The two parents’ nucleus’s are removed from the embryo, leaving behind the ‘diseased’ mitochondrial part, and inserted into a ‘disease free’ donor embryo, which has its own nucleus’ removed. I’m no scientist. Here’s a diagram showing one example of how it works, which the BBC were given by an actual scientist:


The new healthy embryo is then used in a standard IVF procedure, and 9 months later, in theory, a healthy baby is born. As a side note, with the vast majority of genetic material contained in the nucleus, the donor mitochondria only contains a tiny – though significant – fraction of the healthy embryo’s (and future person’s!) genetic material.

In any case, it is easy to see why Murgia went on to claim “this is essentially eugenics, the science of improving the genetic quality of the human population.” With this process (and years ago with PGD for that matter) we are literally improving the genetic material of future generations, and some would say, playing God. Is this a bad thing? Some would argue that national healthcare is something that should bypass/transcend religious interest. Others vehemently argue against interference with the sacred act of procreation.

With regards to genetic improvement, Murgia believes the time has come to drop the stigma attached to ‘eugenics’: “[3-person IVF] can also be understood as manipulating the genome in order to solve human health crises, such as sickle cell anaemia, and so give happier and longer lives to children otherwise doomed before birth.[…] So for the sake of those who need it the most, we must be brave enough push the frontiers of present-day human knowledge into territories unknown.”

Before we go throwing around the word ‘eugenics’, we must settle on how we define the term. Somewhat fitting in with Murgia’s understanding, founder of the eugenics movement (in its modern form) and cousin of Charles Darwin,  Francis Galton’s (pictured below) 1883 definition succinctly described eugenics as “the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally.”


Francis Galton (1822-1911), founder of the eugenics movement

While Murgia is correct to an extent in suggesting 3-person IVF is a form of eugenics, this is not the whole story. Equally important for eugenicists was the long-term implications. Historically, eugenics is a modernist social philosophy based on scientific theory, popular in a number of countries predominantly – though by no means exclusively – during the interwar period. Eugenic ideology is underpinned by the notion that man’s hereditary qualities can be artificially improved and, crucially, that science can control the future of human evolution. While a central of characteristic of eugenic ideology in the past was the furtherance of human evolution, Murgia’s understanding could arguably be more accurately described as a type of preventative genetic therapy.

If 3-person IVF is not eugenics reborn, it could certainly be viewed in decades to come – along with now well-established techniques such as pre-natal screening and preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) – as the scientific catalyst that led to the rebirth of eugenics as a social philosophy. Eugenics aside, 3-person IVF provides us with the opportunity to prevent future human suffering. For many, this is reason enough to celebrate this remarkable breakthrough in the science of human genetics.


Madhumita Murgia, ‘Eugenics need not be a dirty word – instead, it could be lifesaving technology’, The Telegraph ( 26 October 2015), [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/11956083/Eugenics-isnt-a-dirty-word.-Instead-could-be-lifesaving-technology.html].

James Gallagher, ‘Three-person baby details announced,’ BBC NEWS (27 February 2014), [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-26367220].

8. Hillary Clinton and Planned Parenthood


So recently, the 2016 Democratic Candidate, Hillary Clinton celebrated (via twitter) the anniversary of the opening of the first Planned Parenthood clinic by Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) in America 99 years ago.

The trans-Atlantic birth control movement – often advocated in conjunction with the move for universal enfranchisement – gained a considerable following during the 1920s. Certainly in Britain, for many of its proponents, the foremost being Marie Stopes (1880-1958), who opened Britain’s first birth control clinic in 1921 in Walworth, it represented far more than simply the prevention of unwanted pregnancies. In addition, it allowed women the choice to emancipate themselves from their traditional “slavery to the reproductive function.”

However, birth control and Planned Parenthood also served a eugenic purpose: to prevent those with apparently lower intellect from having large families (if any families at all). With many adopting a position that was at best sceptical towards sterilization, birth control provided a less controversial means to lower the fecundity of the working class/poor black people and counter racial degeneration. In Britain, no one encapsulated this hybrid of female emancipation and eugenics more than Stopes herself, who argued in 1920 that “once the women of all classes [had] the fear and dread of undesired maternity removed from them, they [would] be free to put all their delicate strength into creating desired and beautiful children. And it is on the feet of those children that the race will go forward into the promised land of Utopia.”

Sanger also saw the connection between birth control and female emancipation: “[A] woman can never call herself free until she is mistress of her own body. Just so long as man dictates and controls the standards of sex morality, just so long will man control the world. Birth control is the first important step woman must take toward the goal of her freedom. It is the first step she must take to be man’s equal. It is the first step they must both take toward human emancipation.”

American social reformer and founder of the birth control movement Margaret Sanger (1883 - 1966) at the Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conference in New York City. She is president of the Birth Control League. (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

American social reformer and founder of the birth control movement Margaret Sanger (1883 – 1966) at the Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conference in New York.

Sanger was also a eugenicist. In Britain and America, eugenicists tended to view the world in terms of superior and inferior racial groups (to varying degrees): something commonly referred to as scientific racism. From this viewpoint, sweeping generalisations could be made, especially referring to someone’s intellect and personality, judging simply from the colour of their skin. Furthermore, ‘racial intermixture’ was seen as disastrous from an evolutionary perspective.

In her recent article for Breitbart, Susan Berry correctly drew attention to the connection between Planned Parenthood and the American eugenics movement, which from the 1900s to 1970s – whether through sterilization, abortion or contraception – prevented thousands of children being born. It was thought this would prevent the degeneration of the American race (effectively referring to white people only).

Sanger is remembered for making birth control available to poor women. One must, along with head of Ministers Taking a Stand, Bishop E.W. Jackson, also consider that equally: “Her motivation was stopping people whom she considered ‘defective’ from having what she would call ‘defective children.’ She thought that black people needed to be stopped from propagating and growing their population, and other people she called ‘feeble-minded’.” Indeed, as a result of projects such as Planned Parenthood, the Guttmacher Institute reported that in America black women are five times more likely to undergo an abortion than white women.

While eugenics is no longer really a thing, at least not in terms of scientific racism and the like, in America it’s various measures certainly targeted black people more frequently than white, via Planned Parenthood and varying state laws on sterilization. Sanger should not be discussed without the use of a disclaimer (Sanger was also a utopian eugenicist who believed black people were inferior and should have fewer children). However, referring to Planned Parenthood as ‘evil’ (or something similar) because of the opinions of its founders is not useful. The term ‘evil’ itself is ludicrously subjective. If America must continue to accept its eugenic past, we must also accept that for all its misgivings, ironically, eugenics also played a role in giving women increased control over their own fertility. Were Hillary Clinton to adopt this position, however, the popular vote would surely be lost.


Susan Berry, ‘Hillary Clinton Celebrates Planned Parenthood’s Years of Pursuing Eugenics’ Breitbart (16 October 2015), [http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2015/10/16/hillary-clinton-celebrates-planned-parenthoods-years-pursuing-eugenics/].

Marie C. Stopes, ‘Imperial and Racial Aspects,’ in: Marchant ed., The Control of Parenthood, 202.

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.

6. Pigs, Gene-Splicing and Moral Relativism

In a show featuring murder and mutilation, the most shocking moment of the new Sky Atlantic drama Fortitude (first episode: 29/01/2015) was the lead character discovering a pig being experimented on in an isolation chamber. With Fortitude set in the Arctic, the viewer is led to believe the intention is to test new treatments for frostbite on pigs before humans.

Britain’s leading fertility doctor, Robert Winston, revealed that technology he helped develop could “splice new genes into sperm”. Moreover, with the use of this technique, pigs – being a relatively close genetic match to humans – could soon be created with enough human DNA that their organs can be used for transplant operations without fear of rejection. While the use of animal experimentation to improve human health is nothing new, it remains controversial. Or does it? Most comments and articles on the subject focussed more on the moral implications for humans rather than the treatment of animals. It seems that in mankind’s ongoing quest to live as long as possible, the treatment of animals can be somewhat overlooked. However, one may ask, is there much difference between breeding animals for meat and breeding them for organs to save human lives?

“Meddling with nature is in this context risky.” Winton, quoted in 'The Guardian' in June 2014

“Meddling with nature is in this context risky.” Winton, quoted in ‘The Guardian’ in June 2014

The so-called ‘gene-splicing’ technology could also – eventually – be implemented into current IVF and PGD techniques (see also: 2. “Designer Babies” and the Culture of “Perfection”: Eugenics Reborn?) to create faster, more intelligent and more ‘attractive’ designer babies. However, Winston has argued that: “I don’t think it’s very likely it will be used in the UK in a mischievous way but I’ve no doubt that given the burgeoning market, given the desperation of people who want to enhance their children in all sorts of ways, humans might be tempted to use this and that therefore it does become a form of eugenics.”

When does human enhancement become eugenics? Arguably eugenics considers the whole population – or even species – rather than isolated cases of enhancement. Eugenics was most successful – in establishing a national programme of human ‘improvement’ – in interwar dictatorships, above all, Fascist Italy (mostly pronatalism for population increase and increased post and pre-natal care for mother and child) and Nazi Germany (most famously in the form of widespread sterilizations and the Holocaust). In theory, eugenics  requires a certain amount of submission to the ‘greater good’ of the national collective (or to the human species), something that contrasts heavily with the democratic nature of modern society. Thus, Winston suggests while unlikely to be ‘abused’ on a large scale in the West, “You could easily see how this kind of thing could be used in North Korea.”

While some questioned whether eugenics was necessarily evil, this was a controversial stance: “[Q:] Why is eugenics always seen as something evil? [A:] Because the Nazis did it, and opposing anything the Nazis did or thought serves as a way of demonstrating one’s OWN moral superiority.” Others commenters disagreed with Winston, suggesting we may already live in a dystopian present: “Why would we fear North Korea & eugenics any more than we would our own scientist’s? Dr. Frankenstein hides in all nations and all races. England is no exception.” Interestingly, then, most comments did not focus on the morally ambiguous nature of animal testing but the implications of such developments on human society. With a wide range of moral viewpoints existing in modern society it seems common opinions on such subjects are far from uniform. The development of reproductive technology is startling, but if moral relativism were to become the norm, what role will (either) eugenics and/or human enhancement play in our future?


Sarah Knapton, ‘Robert Winston: my research could open door to “risky” eugenics,’ The Guardian (6 June 2014), [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/10882336/Robert-Winston-my-research-could-open-door-to-risky-eugenics.html]

Amanda Williams, ‘“Pay £200 to see the doctor so you value the NHS”: Labour peer Lord Winston claims patients should be charged for treatment to stop taking health service for granted’, The Daily Mail (5 August 2014), [http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2716381/Pay-200-doctor-value-NHS-Labour-peer-Lord-Robert-Winston-claims-patients-charged-treatment-stop-taking-health-service-granted.html].

5. Dawkins, Eugenics and Religion

In August 2014, The Guardian journalist, Giles Fraser, criticised Richard Dawkins for sympathising with eugenics. Dawkins’ most enthusiastic endorsement came in 2006, when he suggested that with Hitler long gone, we could now reconsider the role of eugenics in society: “If you can breed cattle for milk yield, horses for running speed, and dogs for herding skill, why on Earth should it be impossible to breed humans for mathematical, musical or athletic ability?” (The Guardian, 29 August 2014)

‘Richard Dawkins at the Edinburgh International Book Festival’, The Guardian (29 August 2014).

‘Richard Dawkins at the Edinburgh International Book Festival’, The Guardian (29 August 2014).

Dawkins, author of the bestselling The God Delusion (2006), is a renowned atheist. In response to Dawkins’ ‘humanistic’ eugenic ideas, Fraser compared them with a ‘religious’ outlook: “The humanist attack on religion is that religion often places human flourishing second in its cosmological order of importance, and that this leads to human beings losing out to divine command. […] [M]any humanists also place the category ‘human’ quite a long way down their order of importance, with things such as rationality or choice or the avoidance of pain being deemed of greater significance. Human life can thus be easily traded away in some utilitarian calculation. It so happens that, when it comes to eugenics, religion has a much better track record at defending the human than science or leftwing progressives.” (The Guardian, 29 August 2014)  Here one may assume the comparison with ‘religion’ (in its broadest sense) intends to undermine Dawkins’ overtly rational approach and endorsement of eugenics. However, there is also an assumed divide between the scientific/humanist – and sometimes eugenic – worldview and that of ‘religion’. Are ‘secular’ eugenics and ‘religion’ (or for the sake of argument, Christianity) two incompatible approaches? Arguably eugenics is the belief in the use of practical measures – be it extermination, selective breeding, pre- and post-natal healthcare etc. – to further human evolution. Thus, we should also ask, does one’s belief in God prevent the belief in evolution?

One of the most radical eugenicists in the British movement was E.W. Barnes, the Bishop of Birmingham from 1924-1953. Interestingly, Barnes – along with others in the Christian Modernist movement – wished to reconcile Anglicanism with the doctrine of evolution.Thanks to his acceptance of evolution and particularly Mendel’s theories of heredity, Barnes, a religious leader, was able to become a leading eugenicist alongside his career in the Church. The same year as he became Bishop, Barnes joined the British Eugenics Society.

In the 1930 lecture, titled ‘God and the Gene’, Barnes gave a useful overview of his brand of ‘Christian eugenics’: “by struggling against evil and adverse circumstances, man’s moral and spiritual faculties have been sharpened; and the individual who emerges most successfully from such a struggle is best fitted to lead the race on a little nearer to the perfect ideal of social organisation which the Christian terms the Kingdom of God. […] In the stage of civilised progress which we have now reached, it is, in particular, our duty as a race to eliminate mental defect. […] We regard measures to improve the quality of the race as a service to God” (Barnes, ‘God and the Gene’, 7 November 1930). This was contrary to more ‘traditional’ Christian approaches at the time, in which the pious strove not to eliminate the ‘poor’ and ‘downtrodden’ from the population, but care for and protect them.


Bishop E.W. Barnes (1877-1953)

After the Second World War, Barnes preached the need to introduce sterilization and euthanasia of the ‘feebleminded’ (or ‘mentally deficient’) into the newly created Welfare State: “fairly often we hear of a child being born pitiably defective in mind or body and of the parent’s relief when it dies. I am convinced that in such cases early euthanasia should be permitted under proper safeguards. […] Equally, from the Christian standpoint, as I see the matter, there is no objection to medically controlled sterilisation.” (‘Euthanasia and Sterilisation,’ 21 May 1945).  Curiously, his main downfall in garnering public support was not from opposing religious figures, but the association of such ideas with the recently defeated Nazi Germany. Is Dawkins correct in suggesting that over 60 years on it is time to rethink the popular revulsion of eugenics? Should religious leaders be encouraged to engage in open dialogue on the subject?

Despite one being a religious leader and the other an outspoken atheist, Barnes and Dawkins have much in common. Above all, they agree first, in the existence of superior and inferior traits in humanity, and second, that eugenic improvement is morally commendable. In his article, Fraser disagreed: “Morally, the category of the human ought to be entirely indivisible: all being of equal worth, irrespective of wealth, colour, class, ability, Some people are better at sports or sums, but nobody is better at being human, neither are there better sorts of human beings.” (The Guardian, 29 August 2014) Is this position likely to be that adopted by society in general? As new genetic technologies emerge, will human enhancement become increasingly desirable? Will they be associated with Hitler and the Holocaust or the future of humanity?


Giles Fraser, ‘Nobody is better at being human, Professor Dawkins, least of all you,’ The Guardian (29 August 2014), [http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2014/aug/29/nobody-better-at-being-human-richard-dawkins].

Ernest W. Barnes, ‘God and the Gene’, 7 November 1930, The Papers of E.W. Barnes, 12/1/456, Special Collections Department, University of Birmingham.

-. ‘Welfare and Population’, The Eugenics Review 42, 2 (July 1950), 94.

‘Euthanasia and Sterilisation’, The Manchester Guardian (21 May 1945), 3.