In Praise of Eugenics
Maciej Zaremba-Bielawski, ‘Hygienists. From the History of Eugenics’, Czarne, Wołowiec 2011

In Praise of Eugenics

BY Kinga Dunin

In 1997, Polish-born Swedish journalist Maciej Zaremba published an article discussing an issue that the Swedish collective memory had suppressed, namely, that the country had once employed compulsory sterilisation for decades, in the name of ‘racial hygiene’

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Let’s start the simplest way possible: with the basic facts.

The word “eugenics” comes from the Greek eugenes, “good in stock”. It was coined in 1883 by the cousin of Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, and was used to describe actions undertaken to improve species, including humans, through proper breeding. The concept was backed by the theory of evolution and Mendel’s discoveries in heredity. The passing of traits from parents to offspring had already been common knowledge, but Darwinism explained that the selection of traits was determined by their usefulness. From there, it was only a short step to the conclusion that the development of civilisation had made life too easy, thus stripping the environment of its role in the natural selection process and enabling undesirable traits to appear in the human population. Darwin’s discoveries also led to a colonisation of the social sciences by the natural sciences, with social Darwinism becoming an ideology, and eugenics — an attempt at its practical implementation. Voices were raised about the need to rationally breed people, and the term “racial hygiene” was invented. Racial hygiene institutes were founded, and their findings were cited in legislation. The topic was discussed and appropriate bills were prepared in many developed nations, most of which ultimately resisted the temptation.

The state of Indiana was the first to pass such legislation in 1907. The Swiss canton of Vaud followed suit in 1928, then Norway and totalitarian Germany in 1933, Sweden in 1934, and Finland in 1935. They were joined in 1940 by Japan. (This is not an exhaustive list.) The United States began to reverse this legislation during World War II. Sweden withstood reform the longest — the laws remained on the books until 1976.

In effect, according to official statistics, around 350 thousand German citizens were subjected to eugenically-motivated sterilisation, as were 62 thousand Swedes, 60 thousand Americans, 3.5 thousand Canadians, 40 thousand Norwegians, 6 thousand Danes, 58 thousand Finns, 450 Icelanders, 300 to 400 Swiss, and 800 thousand Japanese. It should be noted that women comprised the majority of those sterilised.

Appearances by 
Maciej Zaremba

16 May (Monday), 19.00
Tajne Komplety Bookshop
ul. Przejście Garncarskie 2 
The meeting will be hosted by Marta Mizuro

17 May (Tuesday), 19.00
Gazeta Cafe
ul. 27 Grudnia 3 
The meeting will be hosted by Włodzimierz Nowak

18 May (Wednesday), 18.00
Ostrów Wielkopolski Museum
Main Square - The Town Hall
The meeting will be hosted by Witold Banach

20 May (Friday), 18.00
Adam Tomaszewski Public Library
ul. Wrocławska 28
The meeting will be hosted by Jerzy Zielonka

In 1997, Polish-born Swedish journalist Maciej Zaremba published an article discussing an issue that the Swedish collective memory had suppressed, namely, that the country had once employed compulsory sterilisation for decades, in the name of “racial hygiene”. The piece shocked the nation’s public opinion and resulted in the payment of retribution to the surviving victims of the procedures, while also forcing other countries to address the issue as well. Two years later, Zaremba published De rena och de andra: om tvångssteriliseringar, rashygien och arvsynd (The Pure and the Others: On Forced Sterilisation, Racial Hygiene and Original Sin), now released in Polish with additional material on eugenics in Poland. De rena och de andra is thus a product of advocacy journalism, with all its strengths and weaknesses. The author’s involvement in the subject may also stem from other, more personal, motivations.

On the opening pages of the book, Zaremba admits that language that was used to justify these practices resembled the speech that accompanied the slaughter of most of his mother’s family at Auschwitz. The other reason, as the author explains towards the end, is that next to his own name, the cover also bears the surname of his father, Bielawski. Oskar Bielawski was a well-known Polish eugenicist as well as a progressive reformer of psychiatric medicine, but also a promoter of solutions that would hardly be considered acceptable by today’s standards.

The infested fruit of eugenics

The infamous — or downright disparaging — term “eugenics” made a comeback in Poland during the recent debate on in vitro fertilisation. Eugenics: the removal of “imperfect” individuals, purges, Nazizm, the murder of cripples, the mentally ill, and the elderly, and ultimately genocide. Does the book by Maciej Zaremba Bielawski make this concept more real to us, or will it merely confirm our pedestrian intuition? I would be inclined towards the latter opinion.

The unquestionable strong points of the book include its reexamination of little-known facts in contemporary history, the wealth of primary sources cited, and its exploration of the causes and ties in a broad socio-political perspective. However, the book is not without its flaws, such as insufficiently thought-out ideological assumptions and axiological premises. As it was in the past, eugenics continues to be more than a mere technological issue, and any comments on the subject are bound to be tied up in an ideological context. Thus De rena och de andra also tells us about its author, especially in the parts where he attempts to answer questions regarding the mechanisms that aided or prevented countries from turning eugenics into a tool of social policy — a tool that happened to be completely inadequate to the purpose for which it was intended. The scientific basis for sterilisation as a method of tending to the quality of society was extraordinarily weak. At the time, little was known about heredity, and murky scientific and philosophical concepts were exploited for political, class, and gender purposes. These ideas adapted to the mentality and culture of the societies that applied them.

What exactly was eugenics? Two separate fields or types of eugenics can be discerned: negative and positive. The former involved the elimination of “undesirable traits” from society, while the latter emphasized the need to create conditions in which desirable traits could develop (child care, prenatal care, conscious motherhood; in general terms — health care). Regardless of which legal solutions and social practices were ultimately chosen in early 20th century eugenics, both of these strains co-exist and intertwine. Other ideals present in the field of eugenics were a Promethean vision of a better society (free of handicaps and poverty), compassion, and the illusion, inspired by the Enlightenment, that social processes could be controlled in a rational fashion. On the other hand, there was a loathing and dislike of those who were different, weaker, or unproductive — a racist value judgment on nations. To take a line from the gospel, “You will know them by their fruit”; sterilisation is a condemnation of the tree from which it was born. The fruit is undoubtedly infested. But perhaps some other, untainted fruit was also born from the same tree? Polish eugenics brought about such developments as the reform of psychiatric medicine and the foundation of the Association for Conscious Motherhood.

An indictment of the welfare state

As I was reading Zaremba’s book, I got the impression that it was intended as an indictment of the welfare state. Sweden was even more than a welfare state, it was a “home of the people”, according the policy proclaimed in 1928 by the country’s socialist premier, who envisioned the country as a common family home that did away with class divisions. It was a normative vision, but its social foundation was an actual community, at the national as well as local level. The sick, the poor, and the dysfunctional constituted a burden to the state, a burden that became all the more pressing as the welfare state grew in efficiency and assumed growing responsibility for its citizens.

The purely economical motive of eugenics thus became apparent. It was perceived as a way to unburden the budget and to cast off the state’s duties to the needy. A society with strong internal bonds also has strong mechanisms of social control: people watch each other and any deviations from the norm provoke harsher reactions. With highly developed governmental institutions, informal control can easily transform into formal and legal control. Societies that resisted the temptation to employ eugenic solutions were much more individualistic and did not force the citizen to conform to the expectations of the state or community.

Collectivism was also reflected in the form of democracy adopted in Sweden, which did not value human rights and lacked a clear separation between the judicial, legislative, and executive branches; nor were civil rights guaranteed by the constitution. Politics simply wasn’t perceived as the domain of conflicting opinions. According to Zaremba, what made the United States quickly back out of its eugenic policies was the existence of a strong and independent judiciary, which could question the legality of eugenics-based laws.

Zaremba points out another characteristic of welfare states: the existence of a public health care system, the ties between doctors and the state, and an approach to patients that was oriented towards public health care. It engendered an augmented definition of health, one that was synonymous with happiness. (Recall the contemporary definition of health, as professed by the WHO: “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being”.) This made it easier to expand the list of undesirable traits. Once limited to hereditary disorders, the list now included social dysfunctions. Like other countries, Sweden ultimately resorted to the use of intangible categories such as mental deficiencies, promiscuity, weak willpower, succeptibility to influence, clumsiness, and inferiority. The very act of bearing a child without adequate means for its support was considered evidence of irresponsibility. It was considered appropriate to sterilise people who had been branded as madmen, perverts, alcoholics, repeat criminals, prostitutes, and vagrants. Morality was conflated with intelligence, and intellectual deficiencies were regarded as the cause of immoral behavior.

It is hard not to notice the classist motivation behind these categories, or their obvious judgmental overtones and the influence of middle class moral norms. Considering the practical inefficacy of eugenic practices, which failed to modify the collective gene pool, we can clearly see that the only result and hidden purpose of these practices was to hurt, punish, and pressure women of disadvantaged social strata.

Eugenics turned out to be the perfect ideology for the middle class, whom it enable to oppress lower social strata under the guise of caring for their well-being. Higher classes were targeted, as well, for their supposed degeneration, which was considered to be a result of their inbred lineage and care-free lifestyle. Academics and members of the government apparatus found the approach convenient. Prejudices were disguised as science: biology, sociology, and anthropology.

Socialists also supported the idea due to its technocratic approach to social issues and its promise to replace liberal chaos with rational discipline.

Zaremba ultimately concludes that “eugenic savagery [became possible — KD] when the missionaries of the planned economy retained a monopoly on morality as well as common sense.”

Another suspect in these proceedings is Protestantism, particularly Puritanism, which played a great role in shaping the dominant mentality. The Nordic countries and the United States share a Puritan heritage. Its strength in the former is amplified by the existence of national religions and the lack of a separation of church and state. What is it that comprises the Protestant mentality? The conviction that success in life is a sign of God’s grace, while its lack signifies damnation. The poor are not merely poor, they are also guilty, and thus unworthy of sympathy. This engenders a strict morality and a restrictive attitude towards sex, one that glorifies abstinence and self-restraint. As always, the flip-side of such attitudes is a willingness to condemn others and seek out their sins. This serves to strengthen the community and remind its members of their common values.

Women and their sexuality were subjected to particular restrictions. Their fertility became the property of the nation, their uteri belonged to society, and they were required to act accordingly. Another aspect worth mentioning is misogyny, which is prevalent in other religions and patriarchal systems in general.

On the opposite side of the barricade there is the Catholic Church, which opposes eugenics and defends the value of life and traditional families.

A liberal conservative solution

It is hard to argue with the author’s conclusions, which appear to be an accurate list of factors that precipitated the legal solution which made eugenically-motivated sterilisation possible. The devil, as usual, is in the details: in the rhetoric, the emphasis, and the conclusions, the generality of which exceeds the scope of the presented material. In De rena och de andra, sterilisation and its discredited basis, despite the author’s reservations, are treated as a litmus test of societies and their choice of political solutions. Whatever fostered the practices was bad, and thus whatever didn’t foster them was automatically good.

Thus a lack of social services is good, because the poor cannot be observed to burden the state where there are no such services. There is no temptation to discipline them as long as the free market can do so itself.

Market-oriented health care is good; that way the friendly family doctor can make house calls to the bourgeois home, according to Zaremba’s wistful description.

The lack of modern social paradigms is good, as it prevents the degeneration of tradition. (Keep in mind that the nation-state and all its functions is a modern invention, as is Protestantism and its driving force, capitalism).

Catholicism is good, as it defends the sanctity of life and traditional social solutions.

Social diversity is also good, as is postmodernist detachment and cosmopolitanism.

A weak state is good, as it cannot exert control over its citizens, and even if it so desired, it could not launch and conduct a sterilisation campaign.

Strong liberal democratic institutions that respect civil rights are good.

Individualism is good.

Women’s equality is good.

Despite their numerous inconsistencies, these statements form an all-too-easily-recognizable ideology, namely, liberal conservativism. Our greatest value is freedom, while “theirs” is religion and tradition, keeping them under control. The free market will reign over all.

Is this not a tempting and — more importantly — better order? Certainly not in every respect.

The free market might not conduct compulsory sterilisation, but it increases social inequality and deprives excluded social strata of their opportunities for self-realisation.

Free-market health care is more expensive than socialised medicine and leaves large groups of people with no safety net; in effect, it fails to provide better public health results at the public scale.

The Church’s respect for life entails a fight against abortion at women’s expense, along with a ban on the use of birth control and condoms, even under the threat of contracting HIV.

The traditional family is more than just a place of care: it often involves violence, and bearing a large number of children can be a surefire road to poverty even in wealthy societies.

Excessive individualism results in lower social cohesion, less trust and loyalty among individuals, and a reluctance to perform actions that benefit the community.

From the conservative liberal point of view, eugenics isn’t just the driving force behind inhumane actions. It is a nemesis, retribution for human pride, an attempt to impose social order on the world. The only rational alternative, they seem to claim, is traditional Catholicism or the natural and unbridled force of the free market.

From sterilisation to elimination?

The most gruesome consequence of eugenics is claimed to have been the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis. In Zaremba’s book, the words “fascism” and “eugenics” rhyme, while the modern connotations of the term “racial hygiene” are clearly racist, although this might be racism in national, ethnic, and cultural — rather than biological — terms. This can bring about racist consequences when the group that is considered dispensable is also treated as racially foreign. The fundamental difference is that eugenics focuses primarily on perfecting one’s own society, and need not place value on race or invoke racially-motivated hatred. It follows that there have been eugenicists who were not racists, and racists who were opposed to eugenic solutions. Furthermore, eugenics was largely motivated by a desire for social well-being, in the broadest sense, rather than to build some vaguely-defined nation.

Zaremba ultimately reaches the conclusion that racial hygiene does not translate directly into the Holocaust. As he notices, the former is legitimised by biological utilitarianism, an attitude shared by nations other than the Germans, while genocide requires metaphysical hatred. There is, however, a common denominator: social Darwinism, which justifies the elimination of “those who are without sin”. The line between eugenics and racism becomes blurred as soon as the former is prepared to consider someone as less desirable.

While it is true that in Nazi Germany, compulsory sterilisation quickly led to the murdering of the mentally ill and handicapped, this does not necessarily prove a causative relationship between the two. Zaremba often conflates sterilisation with elimination. This approach is understandable, in that the true purpose of sterilisation was to punish and symbolically dispose of people regarded as less desirable. But this was only symbolic. What was essentially eliminated was their ability to produce offspring, that is — potential offspring. In many cases, this rhetoric resembles the use of the term “unborn children” in the context of abortion. Even if it made sense to refer to a fetus or human embryo as an “unborn child”, the ontological condition of a child that was never born is radically different, as it was never conceived in the first place. To put it simply, it is the difference between existence and non-existence. A common trick employed by pro-lifers is to ask the question, “What if Beethoven’s mother had had an abortion?”, or — in an ad personam aimed at political opponents — “Would you have wanted your mother to abort you?”

Zaremba employs similar tricks, quoting a handicapped person as saying they prefer the life they have to no life at all. He admits that he cannot say whether it is better to exist or not have existed at all. But this is a false dichotomy. We can only compare ourselves to that which exists, and that which is non-existent does not exist. It is potential, at best, and instead of mourning the possibility that Beethoven might not have been born, we should equally mourn all the musical geniuses that were not born, even though they could have been, given the right turn of events. It is one thing to take the life of another, and it is another to prevent the occurrence of one of an infinite number of possibilities. There is nothing surprising in the fact that someone who exists desires to preserve his existence; if he did not exist, there would be no entity capable of ponder the issue. Someone might argue that people sometimes commit suicide, thus choosing non-existence. I, on the other hand, would say that they are rejecting a life whose quality they are not satisfied with. They choose nothing, as an entity can make no choices once it ceases to exist.

It all depends on the language used. To metaphorise sterilisation as the elimination of people leads directly to associations with genocide. And yet we could just as easily claim that the purpose of eugenic policies was to eliminate sickness, disabilities, dysfunction, and misery.

The statement closest to the truth is that the purpose was to brand, to stigmatise, and to abuse those who were different. Such practices existed long before the dawn of eugenics, and will continue to exist even if eugenics is forgotten. All that ever changes is the justification; prisons are always full.

Another ethical issue is the following question: is sterilisation always wrong? It certainly is a form of mutilation, and the process does involve some risk. It is impermissible in Poland, and is treated as a radical birth control method in other countries. Moderate eugenicists hoped to replace it with conscious fertility control. But their goal remained the same: to limit the number of children that would be born without proper conditions for development, and would thus pose an obstacle to social development. Even if one of them grew up to be Beethoven.

Moral condemnation can surely result in coercion. Only fascist Germany formally permitted compulsory sterilisation, however in countries such as Sweden, voluntary sterilisation was pure fiction. The difference between the doctors and civil servants, and the women subjected to these operations was enormous, just as the potential for abuse, manipulation, and blackmail was enormous.

Freedom, equality, eugenics

Is the situation really that unambiguous? It would be, assuming that individuals behaved rationally, or were at least capable of self-control.

“I once took part in a study of the functioning of the health care system. I recall having a discussion with a gynecologist who admitted to having sterilised a patient without her knowledge or consent. The mildly retarded woman kept bearing children who would always end up in orphanages. She was incapable and unwilling to bring up children, but she was also unable to use birth control. Her last child was born via Caesarean section, and any subsequent pregnancy could potentially have damaged her health.”

Given that Zaremba’s book is illustrated with many similar stories, I have also chosen to use the method of persuasion that is individualisation. I find this story morally ambiguous; its meaning and the motivation we ascribe to the doctor surely depend on whether or not we are prepared to condemn his actions. It also leads us to one axiom of our culture that we are never to question under any circumstances: all people are equal. This incantation, which Zaremba often repeats, fails to overcome reality.

Yes, people are equal, but this equality should apply to the rights guaranteed to them. The materialization of these rights depends on their capability to exercise these rights. Otherwise, these rights remain abstract, and inequality remains inequality. How would it work in this particular case?

In a true welfare state, the above woman would have a counselor of some sort who would be familiar with her living conditions, would know how to communicate with her, and would help her articulate her desires and expectations. Mild retardation is no obstacle. The obstacle is the conditions in which she lives and which made her who she is: most certainly poverty, lack of social support and proper role models, and men’s sexual objectification of women. Until these conditions change and proper social welfare is provided, she will never be equal to a well-paid Swedish journalist.

If she were to express her will to have children, would it be binding? The individual’s right to bear children seems obvious to Zaremba, even if it is the only right and vestige of humanity left to those that are excluded, mistreated, unadapted, and dysfunctional.

Another right that is currently being demanded is the right to be healthy. As the author mentions towards the end of the book, this right has served as the basis for lawsuits over “wrongful birth”. Plaintiffs in such cases demand retribution for being born disabled, despite the fact that the birth could have been prevented. Can we also demand retribution for being born into bad social conditions? How bad would they have to be?

Zaremba quotes a poem dedicated to Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński by Maria Jasnorzewska-Pawlikowska, titled “Prawo nieurodzonych” (The Right of the Unborn). An excerpt is quoted below:

We don’t want dreary basement apartments,
The curses of fathers, wielded axes,
Nor lullabies of clamor and shouting!

We don’t want to suffer thirst and hunger,
We want beautiful, blossoming gardens,
And to spend our youths basking in sunshine.


We want rights for the unborn among us!
From the basements to the castles and thrones,
May they save us from the horrors of life!

We want rights, we want legal protection!
And to strike fear in the hearts of that pair,
Who would have us stretched on the bloody wheel.

Aside from the right of a woman to control her own fertility, one argument put forth by pro-choice advocates in Poland is the child’s right to be loved, wanted, and cared for. The right to a rightful birth. Is that eugenics? The elimination of the unneeded? The Catholic Church would certainly stand by that statement. Would the voluntary sterilisation of a person suffering from a hereditary illness also be considered eugenics? Or would that be the elimination of the sick?

Thanks to scientific advancements, medical procedures designed to help people bear children are becoming increasingly effective. Eugenics, however, has now been privatised, and is justified by sympathy for those suffering from illnesses and their parents, who have no choice but to care for them. Its purpose might increasingly be perfection rather than avoiding obvious deprivation.

This obviously gives rise to a variety of moral dilemmas, the most important of which, in my opinion, concerns the privatisation of eugenics and the free market. We have reason to fear that genetic perfection will become a commodity affordable only to the rich, unless it is made available to everyone through a socialised health care system as part of a public health campaign. But in a world where wealth and the benefits granted by welfare states are distributed so unevenly, it will probably remain an option that only a selected few can choose.

Zaremba, on the other hand, believes that it is trivial to condemn eugenics practiced in the name of the state, while eugenics pursued for reasons of family happiness can be forgiven. He warns us that the mental and political structures that once enabled compulsory sterilisation may one day become a health care priority.

I hope he’s right. Prenatal care will be publicly available, and genetic manipulation will be conducted in cases of dire need, rather than to fulfill the whims of the rich. Zaremba himself cites the case of two deaf lesbians who put significant effort into making sure their child would be born deaf. He abstains from commenting on the story. But I would point out that such cases would have no place in a public health care system.

In his view, privatised eugenics will bring about the same consequences as its earlier counterpart, namely, “a rejection of deviations from the norm, weakness, and disability.” He goes on to say, with what seems like regret, that a variety of disabilities could once be encountered in public. This argument is a rather common “appeal to diversity”: diversity is a value in itself, and eugenics can lead to its disappearance. It is a kind of respect for diversity and suffering that is found among those who do not suffer and who occupy a privileged position in the diverse group in question. It is a celebration of diversity at the expense of others.

Zaremba’s reasoning is as follows: sterilisation is wrong, and thus eugenics — its justification — is wrong as well. (The statement itself isn’t quite logical, but let’s assume that it’s true.) Does this relationship apply to modern genetics and genetic engineering as well as their potential applications? Is it still the same “eugenics”? They differ in at least two regards: their efficacy and scientific bases, and the ethics supporting them.

On the one hand, Zaremba describes eugenics as an extreme example of utilitarianism, while on the other, he observes that it has always involved an element of compassion. The latter has unquestionably become the dominant contemporary justification for eugenics, one that remains utilitarian in nature: ethics that no longer demand that we increase the amount of happiness in the world, as was the case in the classical doctrine, but to limit suffering wherever possible. Selecting the circumstances in which new life is brought into the world is one of the ways in which we now practice birth control, and is regarded as a great accomplishment of civilisation, rather than a moral failure. It allows individuals to make decisions regarding the size of their families, and it also limits population growth. But when it leads to mass abortions of female fetuses, as in China and India, we begin to realise that apart from individual liberties, there are other, more general issues that need to be taken into account, such as whether gender equality is being respected. The scope of the issue is not limited to a person’s right to have children or to be born healthy.

In the final chapter, Zaremba undergoes a transition. Once an attacker of 20th century eugenics, he becomes a somewhat skeptical intellectual. Extraordinarily rapid developments in medicine and biology demand that we seek answers to questions that cannot be avoided. The question is no longer “is eugenics necessary?” It simply exists, if only in its positive sense: medical treatment, the creation of conditions for development, birth control, prenatal care, etc. The question is, “What form of eugenics?” and “For whom?”

translated by Arthur Barys