On July 14, 1933, the Nazi Government introduced the Law for the Protection of Genetically Diseased Offspring (Gesetz zur Verhuetung erbkranken Nachwuchses). This law intended to prevent the spread of hereditary diseases by sterilizing individuals who were believed to suffer from, or that their offspring would suffer from, severe physical and psychological disorders (Turda and Weindling, 2007, p. 294). It is estimated that 400,000 people were sterilized under the provisions of this 1933 law (Proctor, 1988, p. 109).
Sterilizations continued through World War II and Nazi power in Germany. Eugenic ideas were taken further than sterilization with the implementation of Action T4 (Tiergartenstraße 4), a euthanasia program, used to kill people who were physically and mentally disabled, incurably ill and elderly (Berenbaum, n.d.).
Although the severity of Nazi crimes were recognized and compensated for after Hitler’s period of National Socialism, sterilization was not initially acknowledged. In a summary of all major compensation programs initially provided to victims of the Holocaust, the Netherlands’ “Victims of Persecution Benefits Act” was the only program that identified ‘sterilization victim’ as criteria for compensation (“Holocaust Victim Assets Litigation, 2000b).
When the issue of sterilization compensation was eventually brought to light, German authorities would only provide compensation to an individual who could prove that they were sterilized outside the provisions of the 1933 law (Proctor, 1988, p. 117). Compensation was provided for individuals who were sterilized as part of medical experiments conducted in concentration camps (see Germany (Auschwitz)’s Sterilization Compensation) (Holocaust Victim Assets Litigation, 2000a, p. 107; Fisher, 1998, p. 535). It was not until December 1980 that compensation, in the form of a one-time payment of DM 5,000 (~$3,000 USD at the time), was given to people who had been sterilized (Holocaust Victim Assets Litigation, 2000a, p. 107
“Whoever is not bodily and spiritually healthy and worthy shall not have the right to pass on his suffering in the body of his children.” – Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf
Sterilizations were performed at Auschwitz, as well as other concentration camps, between March 1931 and January 1945 (Harvard Law School Library Nuremberg Trials Project: A Digital Document Collection, n.d.). Medical experts and officials at Auschwitz worked to develop the most effective form of mass sterilization through various experiments on internees of the concentration camp. Some of these medical experiments included sterilization through means of chemically growing a woman’s fallopian tubes together or by subjecting men’s and women’s genitalia to severe radiation burns from x-rays (Strzelecka, n.d., p. 2-3). Due to complications and exstensive harm, only a small portion of the victims survived these experiments and Auschwitz (Strzelecka, n.d., p. 3).
Compensation has been provided to survivors of the Holocaust and their heirs since the end of World War II. On May 23, 2012, the German Medical Group adopted a declaration apologizing for Nazi-era medical experiments done by physicians (CBC News Staff, 2012).
Sterilizations took place in an area of Germany called Rhineland. Must to the resentment of Germans, this area was occupied by French African troops. Anti-black sentiments were strong, especially towards the “Rhineland bastards” – children of black soldiers and white German women. German officials did not want these children to pass on their mixed-race blood to other Germans; beginning in 1937, they were taken under secret orders and approximately 400 mixed-race children were sterilized (Kestling, 1998, p. 87; Brothers, 2010). No apology has been given to these victims and it is unknown whether or not compensation has been provided to date (National Union of Teachers, n.d.).
The intellectual history of eugenics in the Soviet Union developed quite differently than in other European states. Compared to many of its neighbouring states, its history was short, limited mostly to the 1920s.
In the first decade after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, eugenics was supported by the People’s Commissariat of Health and Education, and perceived as a part of the project of a rational, hypermodern vision for the re-organization of society. Soviet state planners agreed that scientific categorization was necessary to transform the relatively backward lands of the Soviet Union, and worked together with biologists, physicians, and physical anthropologists to charter and survey the characterizations of various ethnic groups on their lands. Soviet racial science was largely led by men who were educated in, and the product of the late imperial era. They were strongly influenced by German racial anthropology and followed similar modules to charter blood groups and “racial” and physical characteristics to define and categorize the populations.
Motivations: Who & Why
In the Soviet case, one would have to make a rather clear distinction between racial anthropology and eugenics. In many European countries the concept of eugenics and racial hygiene came to merge, whereas in the USSR they were largely kept separate. Racial science (razovedenie) was regarded a legitimate field of inquiry. It was treated as unrelated to racism, which was sharply condemned by the Soviet authorities. The existence of human races was not only taken for granted, it was integrated into official ideology, which treated race as a stage, or phase, in historical materialism. Under primitive communism, according to official ideology, there were no human races. Rather, these developed under later stages in history, as the result of socio-economic conditions. Under communism, racial differences would disappear along with nations and classes, and the Soviet man would be a “racial” hybrid.
Applied eugenics, on the other hand, as a concept had a short history in the USSR, limited to a half a dozen years in the 1920s. Soviet eugenicists sought to distance themselves from their colleagues in the west, and to develop a Soviet, socialist eugenics. The eugenic research was, primarily, carried out at institutions for genetic research in Moscow, Leningrad, and Kyiv. In Soviet eugenics, two men, in particular, stood out: Iurii Filipchenko (1882-1930), a pioneer of Russian and Soviet genetics and Valerii Bunak (1891-1979), the leading Soviet racial anthropologist, who worked in the field of craniology, blood groups, and racial classifications.
The biologist Aleksandr Serebrovskii (1892-1948) suggested a “truly socialist” way of eugenic engineering, by producing a superior Soviet man through separating love and reproduction. Others, such as the biochemist E. O. Manoilov believed that the study of various blood types could determine racial and national identities. Soviet eugenicists had to work within the shrinking confines of official ideology. While they rejected race as a basis for eugenic measures against individuals, some argued in applying them to the mentally ill and habitual criminals, whose reproduction they deemed dangerous to society. Eugenics, as a field, essentially ceased to exist following the rise of Stalin around 1928-30. In 1930 the Russian Eugenics Society was disbanded, and eugenics was denounced as a “bourgeois” and “fascist” doctrine. Soviet scholars who had done research on miscegenation were repressed after 1931, by which time their contacts with international colleagues had been almost totally severed. Yet, also under Stalin, Soviet racial science remained respected as a legitimate field of inquiry, and questioning the existence of human races was condemned as “subversive-idealistic” position. During the Stalinist era, but also after 1956 and well into the 1970s, Soviet racial anthropologists continued to charter the “racial characteristics” of various peoples in the Soviet union, operating within increasingly dated paradigm of pigmentation, shape of eyelids, noses, lip thickness to racially classify human populations.
Repeal/Apology – Contemporary/Post-Eugenic Era
As eugenics was prohibited in the Soviet Union at the same time as various programs of sterilization were introduced in several European and North American states, the situation in the Soviet Union was quite different. As state eugenics was abandoned in its infancy, it is hard to talk about a post-Eugenics era in Russia and other Soviet successor states. Yet, the legacy of Soviet raciology remains strong in many post-Soviet countries; primordial notions of the existence of objective racial categories and nationalities remain firmly rooted, are often taken for granted, and seldom questioned.
Per Anders Rudling
During the 20th century South Africa became a metonym for racism. The national policy of apartheid, which buttressed white supremacy through segregation and “separate development” for the races during the second half of the twentieth century, became shorthand for the profound lengths a state will go to entrench racist ideology. Yet eugenics was relatively weak and ineffective in South Africa, both as a science and as a social movement.
Eugenic ideas were certainly prevalent in white society during the first few decades of the 20th century, especially among elites engaged in building the new colony in the wake of the South African War (1899-1902). Two groups of advocates of white racial superiority drew on eugenics as a discursive resource to lay claim to scientific authority: politicians wishing to legitimize the racist social and economic structure, and intellectuals seeking support for their ideas and policy proposals. Among the latter, doctors, scientists, psychiatrists and anthropologists promoted sterilization of the “unfit,” IQ testing, birth control, and laws prohibiting miscegenation.
Eugenists’ aimed at combating two racial threats: “swamping” by the black majority, and the proliferation of “unfit” whites. White South Africans’ primary fear during the 20th century was the Black Peril, meaning numerical “swamping” by the majority black population. Whites occupied a paradoxical position: on the one hand they required cheap black labour, but on the other hand they feared Africans, who never ceased trying to win political and economic freedom. Major policies were put in place in the early decades of the century to prevent miscegenation, such as segregation and the Immorality Act (1927) that forbade sex between whites and Africans. Eugenists succeeded in the 1910s and 1920s to also institute IQ testing and psychometric testing, i.e., measure skulls to determine brain size, to “prove” blacks’ inherent mental inferiority and thus their unsuitability for citizenship.
The second racial threat to white supremacy were “poor whites,” a term that referred to the rural Afrikaans-speaking whites who were pushed off the land and pulled into the cities starting in the late nineteenth century by a series of economic depressions and natural disasters. In urban slums they lived, according to their upper-class counterparts, too close to black South Africans. By ‘sinking’ to the level of the ‘Native,’ poor whites were considered an ominous sign of the fragility of the white race. Moreover, mental testing of Africans in the early 1920s was extended to whites, and the results revealed the significant underperformance of Afrikaans-speaking children relative to English-speaking children. To elites, poor whites’ poverty and supposed mental deficiency indicated whites were experiencing a drastic erosion in quality, which, if undeterred, would render them unable to withstand swamping. And poor whites were proliferating – they, like Africans, had a far higher fertility rate than English-speaking whites. Thus, in South Africa, eugenics was a battle over whiteness: poor whites were an example of the most common focus of eugenic fear and loathing everywhere: marginalized insiders, members of a dominant group who were perceived as “the enemy within.”
Eugenists believed the fertility of poor whites had to be contained and because they were a much smaller group than Africans, they were a far easier group to target for intervention. The need to contain poor whites’ fertility led to the sole example of a successful campaign started by eugenicists, namely the birth-control movement. Starting in 1932, a series of birth-control clinics were opened in urban centres around the country, initially to extend free contraceptives to “poor white” women. However, maternal feminists who extended free contraceptive services to women of all “races” quickly marginalized eugenists within the birth-control movement.
Overall eugenists were irrelevant to racial policy making in South Africa. Their efforts to entrench social policy aimed at affecting reproductive practice through the application of theories of heredity had little impact institutionally or as a social movement. The Eugenics Education Society, for example, formed in the 1920s, lasted only a few years because lack of interest, and most measures they promoted, such as sterilization of “mental defectives,” failed to see the light of day. The reason for this was the pre-existing, powerful racist ideology that had already permeated the white settler community by the time eugenics arrived from Britain in the late 19th century. By then white supremacy had been naturalized. At a moment when eugenics caught the imagination of elites in modernizing nation-states elsewhere, a racial hierarchy already existed in South Africa. In sum, racialized thinking and racist policy-making did not require eugenics, thus it was never of primary importance to the production or maintenance of a racial state.
Apartheid began in 1948, the same year as the adoption of the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights and soon after the revelations of the horrors of the Holocaust. From 1948 onward, arguments marshalled to justify maintaining white supremacy were no longer based on biological claims. Instead ethnic nationalism predominated: the ruling National Party argued that racial separation was good for all ethnic groups, white as well as black. Until the end of the apartheid era, the state continued to criminalize cross-racial sex and racially categorize all South Africans, measures that resonated with eugenic thought, as did the population-control movement that emerged during the Cold War to fight so-called black “overpopulation.” The rhetoric and policy-making of the population-control movement in South Africa, as elsewhere, were updated versions of the kinds of discourse and policies promoted in the name of eugenics. In both movements, it is mainly the poor whose fertility is targeted for intervention, always with the goal of curbing reproduction.
Susanne M. Klausen
Eugenic theories were first introduced to Japan in the late 19th and early 20th century, through influence from the United States and Germany, who emphasized Mendelian inheritance, which was more widely accepted in Japan over French theories, which emphasized neo-Lamarkian eugenics (Otsubo, 2005). It was a topic extensively discussed in Japan (as in the eugenics journal, Yuseigaku), and despite criticisms over the course of the movement, eugenics was adopted along older theories of “pureblood” in order to catch up the dominant ‘race’ (Otsubo, 2005). Japanese were encouraged to marry other pure-blooded Japanese, separating them from “mixed-blood” marriages (Robertson, 2002).
Sterilizations in Japan began in 1940 when the National Eugenics Law was established; 94 sterilizations occurred that first year. Sterilizations focused on criminals and people with perceived genetic disorders such as colour-blindness, hemophilia, ichthyosis, and mental illnesses such as manic-depression, epilepsy, and schilzophrenia. Between 1941 and 1945, 454 persons were said to be sterilized (Matsubara, 1998).
During World War II, Japan also endeavored to preserve the ‘purity of Japanese race’ from foreign soldiers by protecting ‘respectable women’ (Koikari, 1999) from having to have intercourse with Americans. This lead to the creation of ianjo or brothels meant for American soldiers after the Japanese surrender in 1945. These were known as Recreation and Amusement Center, or RAA, and were government monitored (Koikari, 1999). Women recruited to work in the RAA were deemed less respectable (like poor women) and therefore could be ‘sacrificed’ for the purity of the people (Koikari, 1999). These women were subject to sexual violence common to the sex trade. During the 1990s, compensation was provided to “comfort women” of both Japanese and Korean descent, and in 2007, an official apology was issued (Fastenberg, 2010).
After World War II, the Eugenics Law was revised and reinforced when the Eugenics Protection Law of 1948 was put into place. In 1952, mental illnesses were added to the list of those who could be sterilized.
Special note should also be given to Japan’s leprocy control policy, which began in the late 19th century. Patients were gathered and isolated into colonies. This segregation continued into the 20th century, under the belief that vulnerability to the disease was inheritable. Beginning in 1915, patients began to be sterilized, and women forced to have abortions. Patients were also put into forced labour, and subject to arbitrary punishment. Eventually, the Eugenic Protection Law grew to include leprosy. This condition discontinued with the Eugenics Protection Law became the Women’s Body Protection Law.
According to statistics, a total of 16,500 Japanese people were involuntarily sterilized up until 1996 (Matsubara, 1998), when the eugenics laws were abolished. Despite several survivors coming forward to tell their stories, the government of Japan stated in 1997 that they would not offer apologies or compensation for any survivors because the program was legal at the time the sterilizations occurred. (“Japan Says Forced Sterilizations Merit No Payments, No Apology,” 1997; Yamaguchi, 1997).
Eugenic theories gained popularity in 1920s China surrounding reproductive issues such as birth control. Eugenics was advocated for tackling the pervading social problems of overpopulation and venereal disease. Many intellectuals shared in some of the eugenic goals of racial betterment, which they combined with advocating feminism, free marriage, sexuality, and individualism. The most well-known translator, writer, and editor of The Eugenic Journal in China was Pan Guangdan, a Professor of Sociology at Qinghua University. Following birth control advocate Margaret Sanger’s visit to China in 1922, during the 1930s eugenics became part of birth control campaigns and part of a national hygiene program. While Pan Guangdan’s eugenic thought was more conservative and nationalistic, radical sexologist Zhang Jingsheng was also an ardent eugenicist. Prominent gynecologists and public health officials such as Yang Chongrui promoted birth control in their clinical practice, but were also believers in the potential of eugenics for racial betterment for saving mothers from multiple births. Such efforts were not based on any coercive consideration, but rather rested on the utopic potential of eugenics. Eugenic marriage laws and contraception and sterilization of mentally-disabled people were passed by the Guomindang in 1945.
Eugenics in The People’s Republic of China
In 1949 with the final victory of the Communist Party over the nationalist camp the People’s Republic of China was established. After 1949 eugenic ideas were condemned for their inherent class bias. Despite the tensions between eugenics and Marxism, some form of eugenic thought still persisted in the Marriage Law of the 1950s, according to which some people suffering from certain venereal diseases, impotence, or mental disorders were deemed unfit for marriage. But following Mao Zedong’s pronatalist policies, negative eugenics, and contraception became incompatible within socialist thought. Eugenicists and birth control advocates such as Pan Guangdan and Yang Chongrui were denounced as right-wing reactionaries during the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976. As a result of Mao’s policies, the Chinese population increased dramatically.
In the post-Mao era, eugenics resurfaced in conjunction with modernization in the much-debated “One Child Policy” of population control (1979), which was marred in controversies over instances of forced sterilization and abortion, and strict controls over women’s reproductive bodies. Nowadays these eugenics advocates have been revived as important contributors to Chinese history to politically justify these policies. The complete works of Pan Guangdan are available in multiple volumes and have been widely published. Further re-articulations of eugenics occurred in the 1995 law restricting births related to genetic defects, which also supports pre-marital checkups inquiring into hereditary diseases pertaining to mental health and venereal disease. These so-called inferior births were strongly discouraged in favour of sterilization and abortion. In a general sense, eugenics as a notion is still used in China today to denote a science of healthy birth and most books on pregnancies and baby care contain eugenics in their content or title.
Contemporary implications of eugenics
The social problems associated with this contemporary use of eugenics and contested population policies include the gender imbalance resulting from selective abortions that privilege male babies, and the abandonment of babies with mental health problems. These issues have lately made headlines: a safety hatch designed for forsaken babies in Guangzhou was recently closed due to the overwhelming numbers of babies abandoned there, most of them mentally disabled. Recent relaxations of the “One Child Policy” to allow a second child for parents with no siblings has also brought back into the spotlight reproductive issues. Three decades since its implementation, former Malthusian overpopulation fears have given way to an aging population whose labour force is shrinking as the retiring population increases.
Advances into genetic research in China—including the Beijing Genomic Institute’s innovative cognitive genomic project using brain mapping—have raised ethical concerns. These include fears about the eugenic implications of researching intelligence and anxieties that this genomic data would be employed for reproductive purposes through artificial reproductive technologies, selection of particular good genes, and possible creation of super babies. Already the institute’s collection of genetic data has led to the identification of gene mutations permitting adaptation to high altitude environments, which were found to be more common among Tibetans than among Chinese living in Beijing. These new developments suggest that the eugenic implications of reproduction are not a thing of the past but are very much still relevant today.
Eugenics, the idea of conscious intervention to bring about perceived biological improvement in humans, was first named in Britain in 1883. Here, it was a class-based biologistic discourse aimed at altering the demographic balance of society in favour of the middle class. It developed in the second half of the nineteenth century in response to poverty and fears of urban degeneration and a perceived weakening of imperial power, and in opposition to charity towards those sections of the poor that were considered undeserving. In this national context, it found its most powerful expression not in legislation and public policy but in popular and intellectual discourses and fiction.
The term eugenics was coined by Francis Galton in 1883. Galton had published his first article on the subject, “Hereditary Talent and Character” nearly two decades earlier, in Macmillan’s Magazine (1865), advocating tests for selecting the most able men and women to be parents, arguing that race improvement was no more than a rational working with nature. In 1869, he published Hereditary Genius and in 1874 he popularized the phrase “nature and nurture” with the publication of English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture. In the 1880s, he ran an Anthropometric Laboratory in South Kensington Museum for measuring the public. He would later define eugenics as “the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally” (1908). While Galton claimed to have been inspired by his older cousin, Charles Darwin, Darwin in fact rejected Galton’s eugenic ideas, declaring in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) that they would lead to the loss of what was most noble about human nature, and challenging Galton’s eugenic plans.
In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the brutalizing effects of city slums were becoming clear and the housing question came to the forefront of public debate. Anxieties over national efficiency and the idea that poverty might be solved by experts coincided with an emergent, gendered, and moral citizenship, as middle-class women sought to gain public recognition for their national contribution as mothers. The living conditions of the London poor were documented in regular columns in the Daily News, explored by novelists such as Arthur Morrison and Jack London. Galton saw fiction as an important vehicle for eugenics, writing two eugenic utopias, “Donoghue of Dunno Weir” (1901) and ‘The Eugenic College of Kantsaywhere’ (1910). Hardly any late Victorian novel did not have something to say about reproduction, and writers including Sarah Grand, H.G. Wells, and Grant Allen lent support to eugenic ideas, though Wells was ambivalent over questions of heredity, arguing for minimum standards of housing and education in Mankind in the Making (1903) and unequivocally rejecting eugenics in 1940. While eugenics appealed to certain members of the left, it really only found support among a particular group of middle-class socialists, most conspicuously the Fabians who were uninterested in trade unions, opposed to the formation of an independent labour party, and were stridently imperialist. Eugenics would also be taken up by modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf, W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot, but ultimately fiction proved too engaged with ideas of development and complexity to submit to the austere notions of eugenics.
The Eugenics Education Society was established in 1907, with close links with the Committee of the Moral Education League (founded in 1898). It saw class as a matter of heredity, and poverty as the result of inherited defect; it held that the poor were insufficiently responsible to control their own fertility. Galton’s protégé and biographer Karl Pearson was Appointed the first Galton Professor of Eugenics at University College London in 1911.
Prominent members included Mary Scharlieb, Sybil Katherine Neville-Rolfe, and Arnold White. James Crichton-Browne was the Society’s first president, followed in 1909 by Montague Hughes Crackanthorpe, with Galton as honorary President. Links were established with France, Germany, Italy, and the USA and, in 1912, the society organized the first International Eugenics Congress, held in South Kensington under the auspices of London University. In 1912, a proposed eugenic amendment to the Mental Deficiency Bill sought to prohibit marriage and criminalize procreation among the perceived ‘feebleminded’. This was the closest Britain came to passing a eugenic act. The Liberal (later Labour) MP Josiah Wedgwood succeeded in securing the removal of this clause before the bill passed into law in 1913. Nonetheless, eugenics continued to attract support in Britain during the interwar years, with membership of the Eugenics Society peaking during the 1930s. As the emphasis shifted from positive to negative eugenics, the elimination of the supposedly unfit, eugenics moved out of British popular discourse and into European fascist biopolitics and American and European legislation.
The interwar years saw the development in Britain of what has become known as reform eugenics, under the leadership of Carlos P. Blacker, president of the Eugenics Society from 1931 to 1952. Reform eugenics conceded a great role to the environment and saw a move from class-based assumptions. In Birth Control and the State (1926), Blacker argued that biological explanations needed to be considered in a broader social context. The Eugenics Society introduced into parliament two bills (1931 and 1932) to legalize voluntary sterilization, but these attracted little support. In 1934 the British government set up a Committee on Mental Degeneracy headed by Laurence G. Brock. While Brock emphasized the uncertainty surrounding the biological cause of mental deficiency, his committee report fanned a new interest in voluntary sterilization in the case of hereditary disorders which won the endorsement of Julian Huxley and Lancelot Hogben, holder of the new Chair of Social Biology at the London School of Economics, and several Labour groups and women’s organizations.
Eugenics was severely discredited by the atrocities of the Third Reich, and the class bias which had been accentuated in its expression in Britain also became both transparent and unacceptable in the new, more egalitarian climate that followed the Second World War. But eugenic ideas and hereditarian theories of intelligence continued, underpinning the inception of IQ tests in the early decades of the century, and shaping approaches to social inequality. Support for biological determinism continues to fluctuate, inflected by economic, political, and social conditions, and eugenic ideas can still be traced in attitudes to disability and disadvantage.
Australia was an active participant in international eugenic dialogues and movements (Garton, 2010), and the country was greatly concerned with the promotion of “fit” and preventing the “inferior” of multiplying during the late 19th and early 20th century. This resulted in policies engaged with the removal of mixed race Aboriginal children from their parents, in order to solve the “problem involv[ing] Aboriginals, Asians and white people producing offspring that interfered with official aspirations for a ‘pure’ white British race” (Solonec, 2013, p.6). It also manifested more broadly in government plans including surveying schoolchildren to keep track of the population, proposals for sterilization, and the development of unique institutions, such as the experimental orphanage Hopewood House which ran on eugenic principals, and eugenics competitions (Wyndham, 2003). Academics, physicians, lawyers, educators, and feminists, others concerned with “reform”, and associations such as the Racial Hygiene Association of NSW (founded in 1926 by the feminist Ruby Rich (1888-1988) (Rees, 2012)), which eventually became the national Family Planning network of Australia, all supported eugenics and eugenic policies in Australia. Many of these same supporters also attended international eugenics conventions (Wyndham, 2003).
It was believed at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century that mankind could be classified in a hierarchy based on civilization. Aboriginals were thought to be related to Neanderthals (Zogbaum, 2003), and were thus “inferior” to Northern Europeans. Eventually, it was believed that ‘full-blood’ tribal Aboriginals would die off – many were already dying at the time due to diseases brought by the Europeans. These viewpoints also supported the idea that eventually one could “eliminate all Aboriginal characteristics” (Zogbaum, 2003, p.122) through mixed-descent children of Aboriginal and Europeans. The goal was to “populate Australia with ‘good white stock’: legitimately born white infants, who could be called upon to defend the Empire. White Australians were not considered a homogenous grouping, but a continuum that ranged between the ‘racially superior’ elite and ‘racially inferior’ degenerates” (Cole, 2013, abstract). Managed miscegenation was therefore proposed as a form of national cohesion, as it would create blood kinship and ideas of community sentiment and values (McGregor, 2002).
Between 1915 and 1940, A. O. Neville, a man fixated with the idea of eugenics, served as the Chief Protector of Aborigines (Solonec, 2013). During his term, he developed two main ways of controlling the population: 1) a “huge biological experiment” (Zogbaum, 2003, p.122) developed “by deciding who Aboriginal people under his control could marry” (Solonec, 2013, p.76), and 2) by encouraging “assimilation” of those offspring already born. The former method dissipated in use in Australia after World War II, when “authorities moved away from the notion of ‘biological’ assimilation to one of ‘cultural assimilation’” (Solonec, 2013, p.76). Neville defended his policies saying that “they have to be protected against themselves whether they like it or not. They cannot remain as they are. The sore spot requires the application of the surgeon’s knife for the good of the patient, and probably against the patient’s will”(Zalums & Stafford, 1980).
Policies and legislation aimed at the removal of children were developed and enforced between 1909 and 1969 (although in some places, until the 1970s), in order to culturally assimilate mixed-descent individuals into contemporary Australian society (NSDC, 2014). Policemen or Aboriginal Protection Officers were given leave to locate and transfer children from their communities into institutions, and could use surveillance, discipline, and punishment to do so (NSDC, 2014). These half-caste institutions were run under both the government and as missionary institutions (Zogbaum, 2013), and often children in them ended up receiving a lower standard of education, or none at all, in essence teaching those children that they were second-class (NSDC, 2014). However, there is also evidence of other eugenic practices, such as a number of sterilizations on intellectually disabled women and girls (Parker, 2013). Children were also taken from white, unwed mothers during the late 19th century, and those babies were fostered out to white, married, employed couples (Cole, 2013). Illegitimacy was seen as a threat to ‘race improvement’, and such ‘feebleminded’ mothers would not be able provide ‘moral’ environments for their children (Cole, 2013). By placing children with new families, it was believed that their ‘tainted biology’ could be neutralized (Cole, 2013). Most cases of child removal, whether from unwed mothers or mixed families, were justified as being in the children’s best interest.
The forcible removal of mixed-Aborigine children resulted in what is now known as the “Stolen Generations,” and started a grieving process across many generations (NSDC, 2014). Both children and parents suffer from severed cultural connection to family and country (NSDC, 2014). The impact of these policies is still felt in many communities in Australia today.
The discourse on eugenics arrived in Spain at the end of the nineteenth century, coinciding with the aspirations of the so-called Regenerationism Movement. According to regenerationists the loss of the last Spanish colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Philippines in 1898 following the Spanish-American War—a real national trauma—was caused by the biological degeneration of the Spaniards. Above all they felt that a degenerated race called for an “iron surgeon” to cure the Spanish nation. Within this discourse about national degeneration, eugenics found fertile ground. In fact, the first reference to the Spanish eugenics movement appeared in this period, when Enrique Madrazo published his book Cultivation of the Human Species: Heritage and Education in 1904 representing a perfect example of the symbiosis between eugenics and national regenerationism.
The origins of eugenics in Spain intensified in the decade of the 1910s, especially when the Social Medicine Institute was created in 1918. The main notion of eugenics was to regulate procreative behaviour, a concern found in many legal, pedagogic, psychiatric and anthropological texts on sexuality at that time. This sexual issue became an obsessive topic, and it occupied a good part of the first Spanish Eugenic Conference’s attention in 1932. During the Second Spanish Republic (1931-1939), the eugenics program materialized in a wide range of fields: the issuing of prenuptial medical certificates; eugenic abortions; the right to divorce; suppression of legal prostitution; a typification of the crime of venereal infections; sterilization of criminals and disabled people; as well as the introduction of sexual education into the school curriculum. The Republican government approved some of these measures, while others were widely discussed without being implemented.
A Change of Politics: Francoism and the Politicization of Eugenics
The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), the collapse of the Second Republic, and the installation of the fascist regime of Francisco Franco (1939-1975) profoundly modified the situation. Doctors and psychiatrists who were associated with the new regime began to “politicize” eugenics. For them, the racial degeneration of Spain was the result of a foreign contamination caused by “pathogenic alien elements” that were arriving in the country. Authors such as Antonio Vallejo-Nájera and Juan José López Ibor developed racial theories claiming that it had been the political opponents of this new fascist regime—socialists, Republicans, communists, but also homosexuals, Jews and masons—that were responsible for the racial degeneration of Spain. The Civil War was understood as a genuine mechanism of racial cleansing in order to eliminate and neutralize all enemies to the race. Furthermore, they felt it was equally necessary to elaborate eugenic strategies that would allow the recovering and regeneration of the Hispanic race, which was understood as a spiritual community defined by the religious, cultural, and ethical values of their Hispanic heritage.
However, these doctors and psychiatrists—like the Franco regime—also defined themselves as being essentially Catholic, which meant that any eugenic measure taken by the dictatorship ought not to contradict Catholic morality. Thus, within their own ideological framework, the new government could not, for example, accept eugenic abortions or the sterilization of disabled people. Yet, in order to increase the power of Spain, a considerable increase in the birth rate was essential for the fascist regime as well. Attune to this political conviction, it was necessary to stimulate the birth rate by approving measures to support families, to fight male and female sterility, or to punish abortions, which were absolutely forbidden. Furthermore, a premarital council was established, and families’ doctors should report on whether or not a marriage would seem convenient, thus avoiding undesirable consequences for offspring and the future of the race itself.
Affecting the Present: Spain’s Legacy of Fascist Eugenics
During its almost forty years, Francoism tried to boost natality by elaborating various socio-sanitary plans with the sole purpose of increasing the population of the Spanish nation. However, these action plans did not have the same impact on every part of the population. Women and families with a Republican political background were the ones who most severely felt the eugenics and political re-education measures of the regime. In fact, during the dictatorship many of their children were kidnapped, and then adopted by people with an adequate political affiliation and a “proved morality”: those deemed capable of assuring the proper re-education of these kids. These practices continued throughout the 1980s, even years after Franco’s death in 1975 and the transition to democracy. Certainly, measures of negative eugenics like coercive sterilization were never introduced in Spain. But every individual considered to be undesirable, like homosexuals, communist, or simple democrats, could always be—and indeed were often—confined in prison. Catholic morality did not permit doctors to correct the “divine purpose,” but it could not restrain the introduction of other kinds of positive eugenic measures which directly affected up to 40 million Spaniards by the end of the twentieth century.
Salvador Cayuela Sánchez
The word eugenica (or, less frequently, eugenetica) began to spread in Italy in 1912, in the wake of the First International Congress of Eugenics, held in London, under the presidency of Leonard Darwin. The Italian participation at the London Congress not only stimulated a process of institutionalization of Italian eugenics—through the constitution in 1913 of the first Italian Committee of Eugenic Studies—but also demonstrated from the beginning the particular originality of the Italian approach to eugenics. Neo-Lamarckian theoretical influences, Pareto’s theory of the elite and social exchange, positive anthropological evaluation of racial interbreeding and immigration, the Lombrosian connection between genius and degeneration: all these factors created a scientific and intellectual framework that made Italian eugenics inassimilable to the Anglo-Saxon model.
Interpreted as dramatic counter-selection or as a means of national biological optimization, the First World War represented an important moment of development for Italian eugenics, demonstrating the efficiency of direct state management of the biological resources of the nation.
Anxieties over national regeneration, technocratic ambitions and new social welfare-oriented policies, which, after the war, accompanied the crisis of the last liberal governments and the progressive rise of fascism, favoured the affirmation of eugenics as a part of social medicine and public health. In this context, eugenics was progressively seen as a paradigm of national efficiency, based on the subordination of individual liberty to superior collective interests for the “defence of society and the race.” Such a technocratic and managerial conception of the population fascinated the Italian political elite in this period, the left as much as the right, ranging from nationalism to reformist socialism, and of course fascism. It was in these years that Italian eugenics was institutionalized, with the constitution of the Institute of Public Welfare and Assistance (IPAS,) the Italian Society for the Study of Sexual Questions (SISQS), the Italian Society for Genetics and Eugenics (SIGE) and the Italian League of Hygiene and Mental Prophylaxis (LIPIM). In the same period, the eugenic debate went through a season of extreme richness and variety, exploring the fundamental issues of birth control, premarital certification, sterilization and mental hygiene.
The orthodoxy based on the binomial quantitative eugenics, pronatalist population policy, was imposed officially by the fascist regime in 1927. The turning point was above all political, and it was sanctioned by the alliance between fascist natalist policy, inaugurated in May 1927 with Benito Mussolini’s famous Ascension Day Speech, and Catholic sexual morals, reaffirmed by the Holy See in December 1930, with the encyclical Casti Connubii. SIGE’s leadership mirrored this ideological and political fusion: the president was the demographer and statistician Corrado Gini; the vice-president was Agostino Gemelli, founder and dean of the Milan Catholic University, and principle exponent of Italian Catholic eugenics.
On a more specifically scientific level, starting from the second half of the 1920s, the theoretical paradigm that fascist eugenics was based on was constituted by the convergence between Corrado Gini’s integral demography—a synthesis of demography, biology, anthropology, economy, sociology and, obviously, eugenics—and constitutionalist biotypological medicine. Biotypology was represented, in particular, by the endocrinologist Nicola Pende. With its synthesis between biological reductionism and cultural holism, Pende’s biotypology provided the scientific rationale for the fascist project of building the “New Italian” (Italiano Nuovo), without alienating the support of the Vatican. Both Gini’s regenerative eugenics and Pende’s biotypological orthogenesis opposed the Nordic, Anglo-Germanic, and Scandinavian model.
This opposition—simultaneously scientific, ideological and political—was expressed at the institutional level by Italy’s exit from the IFEO, and the constitution in 1935 of the Latin Federation of Eugenic Societies: an alternative model, the birth of which coincided not surprisingly with the most critical phase of diplomatic relationships between fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.
Starting from 1936, and in particular in 1938 with the introduction of State racism in fascist Italy, the ideological and political convergence of fascism and Nazism also influenced the relationship between eugenics and racism, feeding new tensions and oppositions. Between 1938 and 1943 the nature/nurture debate became the battleground for the clash between the different racisms of fascism: biological (Telesio Interlandi and Guido Landra) and esoteric racism (Julius Evola and Giovanni Preziosi) adopted the negative Nazi eugenic model, while nationalist and Mediterranean racism (Giacomo Acerbo and Nicola Pende) remained faithful to the Latin model, environmentalist and neo-Lamarckian. The two positions were opposed in their definition of Italian racial identity, but converged in their discrimination of racial enemies, in particular the half-caste and Jews.
The end of the Second World War did not signal the definitive end of eugenics. In the 1950s and 1960s, on the one hand, the development of human and medical genetics redefined eugenics in terms of preventive medicine and reproductive hygiene. On the other, Gini’s racist eugenics provided a relevant contribution to the anti-UNESCO campaign organized by the International Association for the Advancement of Ethnography and Eugenics (IAAEE) and its journal, The Mankind Quarterly.
In the late nineteenth century, the first stirrings of organized eugenics emerged in the United States in various forms: among maternal feminists affiliated with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, among plant and animal breeders interested in patterns of human inheritance, and among reformers who began to experiment with surgical sterilization as a method to control reproduction of inmates and patients in state institutions. These initial manifestations, which pivoted around concerns with racial fitness, genetic selection, and better breeding, tended to resonate with patterns and policies of exclusion in American society at the time. For example, in Virginia, the sterilization law was developed in tandem with the anti-miscegenation “Racial Integrity Act.” In California, eugenic racism against Mexicans and Asians built upon Sinophobic statutes and sentiments that eventually became incorporated into federal immigration acts. By the early twentieth century, an organized eugenics movement was cohering on national, regional, and local levels across the United States. In an uneven yet extensive fashion, eugenics influenced policies, practices, and understandings of social differences in ways that today are almost always recognized as scientifically biased, unethical, and discriminatory.
Eugenics was one of the primary motivators behind the passage of several types of laws. The most negative of these were sterilization laws, passed in 32 states from 1907 to 1937, which authorized health and public authorities to sterilize those deemed unfit, degenerate, or mentally deficient. From 1907 to the 1970s, when legislatures repealed these laws, approximately 60,000 people were sterilized while institutionalized in state hospitals or as recommended by local eugenics boards. With 20,000 sterilization procedures, California performed the highest number followed by Virginia, North Carolina, and Michigan. Nevertheless, states that did not pass sterilization laws, such as Illinois, often implemented eugenics through policies of segregation and long-term commitment. Eugenicists played a key role in the design and passage of restrictive immigration laws, most significantly, the National Origins Act, passed in 1924, which placed a 2% quota on new immigrants or those hailing from Southern and Eastern Europe as well as Asia. This same year saw the establishment of the U.S. Border Patrol whose primary task was to police the U.S.-Mexico border through a logic of medicalized racial exclusion.
These more negative forms of eugenics sat on a spectrum that also included many positive examples such as Better Babies Contests, Fitter Families Contests, and enticements for mating and breeding among college students. In general, positive eugenics was colored by precepts of white racial purity. However, African American organizations, such like the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) sponsored their own Better Babies Contests as part of efforts to identify the “talented tenth” that could be the face of race betterment.
On the national scale, organizations like the Galton Society, the Eugenics Record Office, and the American Eugenics Society (based in New York), the Race Betterment Foundation (based in Michigan), and the Human Betterment Foundation (based in California) fomented eugenics by promoting family studies, educational programs, legislative campaigns, and popular and scholarly publications. These organizations were also essential to consolidating professional networks among eugenicists in the United States and to stamping the legitimating imprimatur of science on eugenics. Founded in the 1910s, these organizations grew substantially through the 1940s; although in subsequent decades their memberships declined and eugenics began to be criticized or ridiculed by some scientists and social scientists, eugenics found close affinities with some core areas and concerns in medical genetics, demography, and reproductive medicine.
Many scholars argue that eugenics in the United States died a quick death after the end of the Second World War. However, the historical record suggests otherwise. Not until the 1960s and 1970s did the American Eugenics Society disband, legislatures repeal sterilization laws, and U.S. Congress shift immigration laws from a quota to a family reunification system. By that time, new genetic technologies and tests were on the horizon, presenting new questions about the relationship between genetic selection and disease prevention. With contemporary hindsight, we can see that Eugenics with a capital E can be bracketed as one chapter of the twentieth century but eugenics with a lower-case e continues to shape attitudes towards disability, human worth, and genetic fitness.
Alexandra Minna Stern
Most Canadian provinces considered the idea of eugenics during the first part of the 20th century. Only Alberta and British Columbia ultimately passed laws that created eugenics programs, in 1928 and 1933 respectively. Although both provinces repealed their laws in the 1970s, 2,822 Albertans and over 200 British Columbians were sterilized through these programs. The original laws focused attention on people who were institutionalized under the Mental Health Act, meaning that people with mental disorders and those deemed mentally deficient were the primary targets for sterilization. In 1937 Alberta amended its Sexual Sterilization Act to remove the need for informed consent for sterilization subjects who were considered feebleminded. This amendment set Alberta apart from other jurisdictions throughout North America, which had or had added consent provisions.
The vast majority of people sterilized through the Canadian programs had been institutionalized in psychiatric hospitals or homes for people considered feebleminded, mentally deficient, or intellectually disabled. In 1942, however, Alberta changed its law again to move the eugenics program beyond the confines of institutions. As a result more children were identified in the community, at schools, and through public health visits. Canadian provinces and territories other than British Columbia and Alberta did not enact specific eugenics laws; however, several of them participated in eugenics. Nova Scotia, for example, did not legally sterilize people, but institutionalized women of child-bearing age who were considered unfit for motherhood, often on account of having given birth to illegitimate children. Quebec encouraged reproduction among its residents to bolster its population, and therefore its political power, as a form of positive eugenics. It did so by establishing baby bonuses and financial incentives for large families. Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan all drafted sterilization laws, which were defeated in the 1930s as a growing wave of resistance formed, especially among Catholics. The Northwest Territories has yet a different experience, as sterilizations became very controversial in the 1970s, with some people claiming that these surgeries were being done involuntarily as an act of genocide against the Inuit people, and others suggesting that the high birth rate, combined with maternal and infant mortality meant that some Inuit women were requesting sterilizations as a form of birth control. The history of eugenics and reproduction touched every part of the country, but the meanings and practices varied considerably.
Motivations: Who & Why
The Canadian laws were considered progressive at the time that they came into effect. They had been supported by feminists, socialists, farmers, and Anglo-Saxon protestants who believed that Canada, and especially western Canada, could produce an ideal society by restricting fertility within certain groups of people and by encouraging it among others. In the first few decades of the program reformers in western Canada identified new immigrants as undermining the creation of an ideal Anglo-Saxon community, and families from Eastern Europe fared worst in assessments of intelligence and in public health surveys. As a result, a disproportionate number of Eastern Europeans were institutionalized and some were sterilized under the eugenics program. Over time, though, the target groups in Alberta shifted from immigrants, to orphaned and disabled children, to Métis and First Nations women. Men and boys were sterilized slightly less often than women, at 42%, but by the end of the program, Aboriginal women were the primary subjects of sterilization. These shifting targets suggest that the motivations behind the program had also changed over time.
Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act was repealed in 1972, and British Columbia followed a year later. To date only one woman successfully sued the Alberta government in a case that revealed she had been wrongfully sterilized, due to a miscalculation in her intelligence score. Since then nearly 700 sterilization victims in Alberta sought compensation, and their cases were settled out of court. Although the eugenics programs officially ended, the practice of sterilization continues. For some, sterilization represents a form of voluntary contraception. The issue is more complicated, however, as parents or guardians seek sterilization for their disabled children. In the case of E (Mrs.) v. Eve in 1986 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that individuals with intellectual disabilities did not have the right of self-determination, including the right to make choices about their reproduction. This case is a reminder that eugenic ideas continue to influence our understanding of reproductive rights, while for individuals with intellectual, mental or physical disabilities, those rights continue to be limited.
In Mexico eugenics grafted onto long-standing racism towards the indigenous and mestizo (mixed indigenous and Spanish) populations, as well as nineteenth-century anxieties about social and public health problems brought about by rapid urbanization and industrialization. The catastrophic population decline caused by the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917), of an estimated two million people, made public health initiatives urgent. Although Mexican eugenics was largely preventive, that is, focused on improving the existing population through education and improved public health, negative measures, including forced sterilization, had strong advocates.
Eugenic ideas circulated in print from 1910, but it was in the post-revolutionary period that eugenics shaped debates and state policy. For example, the 1917 “Law of Family Relations” depicted marriage as a eugenic act and sought to prohibit marriage for people with conditions deemed dangerous to public health, such as habitual drunkenness. The country’s first major eugenics event was the 1921 Mexican Congress of the Child: delegates debated improving maternal health, immigration “whitening” policies and, by a small margin, voted for sterilization of criminals. Over the next decades, resolutions from this congress helped set the agenda for the public health revolution.
During the 1920s, puériculture, a French form of eugenics targeting women and children, oriented reforms. The Public Health Department’s School Hygiene Service built playgrounds, offered puériculture class to young women and dispatched health visitors to poor neighbourhoods to train future mothers. Puériculture so dominated eugenics that the Mexican Eugenics Society for Racial Improvement (1931-1972), emerged as an offshoot of the Mexican Puériculture Society (founded in 1929).
Eugenics and Race
Mexican eugenicists, whose ranks included public health workers, politicians, lawyers, medical professionals, members of the judiciary and criminologists, expressed contradictory views about Mexico’s ethnic diversity. Some eugenicists believed that the solution to Mexico’s low-density population and high mortality rates was to encourage European immigration, as part of a whitening strategy. Non-European immigrants were a different matter. Mexico’s Chinese population suffered xenophobic persecution in this period: in Sonora State, a 1923 law prohibited Mexican-Chinese marriages, while some cities were legally segregated. Little enforced until the Great Depression, segregation measures offered opportunities for extortion. The persecution culminated in forcible expulsion in 1931, and the Chinese population fell from 18,000 in 1930 to 5,000 in 1940. Others, however, saw promise in Mexico’s diverse population. Former minister of education, José Vasconcelos, argued in The Cosmic Race (La raza cósmica, 1925), that a “spiritual eugenics,” combining the best traits of Europeans, Africans, indigenous people and Asians, was happening in Mexico. He still assumed, however, that the European component enabled the “cosmic race’s” success. Other eugenicists actively downplayed the importance of race. By the 1940s, Alfredo Saavedra, founder of the Mexican Eugenics Society, argued that Mexico needed healthy citizens and that no human group was more genetically problematic than another: humans had to be studied holistically, including their environment, social influences and genetic inheritance. But denying a “racial” problem did not undermine eugenics: some eugenicists argued that psychopaths and the irredeemably criminal should be euthanized and “inferior” Mexicans, such as the insane, epileptics, prostitutes and those with cancer, should be sterilized.
Eugenics’ Influence in Practice
While proposals for euthanasia were never legally implemented, the Eugenics Society’s stance influenced sexual and reproductive education programs, restrictions on prostitution, public health campaigns about venereal disease and the legal stipulation of a prenuptial certificate (1935), which reiterated the restrictions of the 1917 Law of Family Relations and the 1926 Sanitary Code. Alcoholism, discussion of which was implicitly racial because of long-standing associations between indigenous people and drunkenness, remained a public health concern. Alcohol abuse was understood to cause inheritable mental illness and criminal behavior. Veracruz State was at the forefront of eugenic measures, legislating prohibition and, in 1932, passing a eugenic sterilization law, the only one in Latin America, which allowed for the sterilization of recidivist criminals and those with hereditary diseases. There is no definitive evidence, however, of its implementation.
Legacies of Eugenics
Despite the decline of racialized eugenics, eugenics adapted. In 1951, the Public Health Department founded a genetic counseling service for its employees, notwithstanding poor understanding of genetics amongst Mexican eugenicists, who continued to believe in Lamarck’s inheritance of acquired characteristics well into the 1970s. In this century, the United Nations has condemned Mexico for forced sterilizations: in Guerrero, in 2001, 14 indigenous people were sterilized without consent by the state’s health department. There have also been claims of forced sterilization of indigenous women from Hidalgo State. In 2011, a member of Mexico’s House of Representatives sought to tighten the existing legislation preventing forced sterilization, by making those who practice it liable for prison. Eugenics has also become about private choices: elite Mexicans seek out fertility treatment in the United States, which allows embryo selection for genetic traits. Thus, Mexican eugenics is not a historic relic, but rather continues to influence aspects of private choices and public health approaches.
Patience A. Schell
Eugenics in Brazil emerged in the early twentieth century as diverse and multifaceted. The origins of this diversity came from significant disagreement about the nature of race and the many different sources of inspiration for the movement. Thinkers were shaped by far-ranging influences including international scientific currents, as well as the dilemmas of modernization and nation building common to Latin America at the time. Perhaps most importantly, eugenics in Brazil was marked by national concerns, most notably anxieties about Brazil’s long history of racial inter-mixing. Eugenic thought in Brazil therefore filtered and sifted through a variety of competing, often conflicting, ideologies to create a wide-ranging set of ideas that all used the language of eugenics. What linked these ideologies, and what marked Brazil’s eugenic movement as distinctive, were early connections with public health reformers, the failure of “negative” eugenic policies such as sterilization to achieve mainstream dominance, and the overall focus on social, rather than genetic, reforms as the solution to Brazil’s problems.
Brazil’s eugenics movement stands apart as the earliest within Latin America. Like other movements in the region, however, it gained much of its character from its close association with a dynamic public health movement. In fact, the timing of the two movements within Brazil largely coincided, both emerging with energy in the decades of the 1910s and 1920s. Brazil had recently abolished slavery (1888) and established its first republic (1889). Given this recent political and social upheaval, the early decades of the century were dominated by elite concerns about how to create a strong, modern nation despite a population that they regarded as racially problematic, with large contingents of mestiço (mixed) inhabitants alongside indigenous and black populations. Despite the pessimistic views of racial mixing held by political elites, turn-of-the-century intellectuals such as Sílvio Romero and Euclides da Cunha took a largely redemptive view of the issue. Moreover, many medical authorities in the public health movement expanded on this more optimistic interpretation. Brazilian doctors returning from expeditions to the poverty-stricken interior of the country in the early 1910s became convinced that the nation’s problems were rooted in disease and poverty rather than genetic defect or race. These medical reformers endorsed views of neo-Lamarckian genetics, which saw a formative role for the environment and believed in the inheritability of acquired traits. This perspective, along with the general optimism of the public health movement about the potential of Brazil’s population, may have helped to moderate the early years of Brazilian eugenics. While Brazil held the distinction of the establishing the first eugenics organization in Latin America in early 1918 (the São Paulo Eugenics Society, formed by Renato Kehl), its goals at this early juncture focused primarily on propaganda and influencing contemporary marriage laws; adherents remained largely uninterested in negative forms of eugenics that sought to restrict fertility.
While this first organization disbanded in 1919, eugenic ideas and eugenic language continued to be influential amongst those concerned with the fields of education, sanitation, and hygiene, particularly in the discipline of mental hygiene, or preventative psychiatry. By the late 1920s, however, this broad and disparate movement shifted its focus, and some sectors more frequently turned to discussion of negative eugenic measures, such as immigration restrictions and sterilization. Members of this sector, most notably the famous eugenicist and doctor Renato Kehl, moved away from their earlier positions and instead embraced more hardline approaches. Proposals for race-based immigration restrictions gained traction, and though they never passed into law, by 1934 a softer policy of national quotas was passed. In addition, a biological and mental pre-nuptial exam was introduced in the early 1930s. In contrast, proposals for sterilization came under intense criticism, both from Catholics and from those who believed social reform and support for mothers to be a more appropriate route for change. Though this sector of hardliners never came to dominate the eugenics movement as a whole (as the debates of the eugenics congress of 1929 revealed), it nonetheless revealed a significant presence that cannot be reduced to the voice of Kehl alone.
Brazil’s 1929 National Eugenics Congress, its first and last, was remarkable for the range of disagreement about basic premises of eugenics. Some of this rift can be attributed to the rising popularity of Mendelian genetics, which envisioned a much stricter role for heredity than neo-Lamarckians allowed for, but there was nuance even within these approaches. By the time of the 1929 Congress there was no one central orthodoxy to be found, and many of the participating eugenicists spoke prominently in defense of the mestiço. Though the mestiço had been seen in positive terms by early thinkers such as Sílvio Romero, this assessment depended on a view of racial mixing that anticipated a gradual whitening of the population—a premise that still revealed whiteness as an ideal and the end goal. Many at the Congress now questioned ideals of whitening, notably the anthropologist Edgar Roquette-Pinto; he and others instead saw the path for Brazil’s advancement in educational and social reforms. Though these thinkers were far from free from racialism, they nonetheless advocated a route for structural reforms that ventured beyond the biological and proved ultimately dominant in the national climate of the 1930s.
Eugenic thought lingered on in the 1930s, and influenced discussions of immigration reform, as well as provided new impetus for physical education. It lost much of its influence, however, as the decade wore on. The rise of Getúlio Vargas (1930-45) to power through a coup in 1930 created a more centralized state, new social legislation and added repression under the semi-fascist state of the Estado Novo (New State, 1937-45). For eugenicists there was much to appreciate, particularly the regime’s policies of fostering nationalism, identifying potential criminals by physical type, and perfecting bodies through physical education. Yet the regime also embraced rhetoric that privileged racial mixing, and celebrated popular culture with Afro-Brazilian roots. Sociologist Gilberto Freyre encapsulated this new racial thinking in his book Casa-grande e senzala (The Masters and the Slaves) in 1933. His vision of a uniquely harmonious Brazil built on mestiçagem, or racial mixing, became the new dominant understanding of the nation’s past as well as its future. Though this vision ignored stark racial inequalities, and continued to frame race as central to the nation’s path, the myths that he helped to create proved sufficiently useful and seductive to persist (though not without serious challenge) into the present day.