Jan. 15th, 2017

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An interest in eugenics is one of the dirty little secrets that many otherwise progressive figures of the past share with the kind of folks they would never join forces with under other circumstances. Progressive eugenicists talk about improving the species, conservative eugenicists talk about keeping the race (usually the white race) strong and pure, and free of the taint of lesser races, "weak genes" and deviance - notably sexual deviance. Both have used poor science and questionable rhetoric to advance their cause, and relied on such strategies as immigration barriers and forced sterilisation to carry it out. As Nancy Ordover notes in American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism,

"Early eugenics proponents, drawn from the ranks of scientists, politicians, doctors, sexologists, policymakers, reactionaries, and reformers, held that through selective breeding humans could and should direct their own evolution. ... The legislation they drafted, the interventions they backed, the medical regimens they prescribed stemmed from a belief that everything from intellect to sexuality to poverty to crime was attributable to heredity."

Ordover's book is an examination of the arguments and methods of American eugenicists. Writing about the appeal of eugenics in that country, she says,

"The long-lasting appeal of eugenics has rested on its protection of the status quo, on its emphasis on individual and group "failings" over analyses of systemic culprits and on its bedrock insistence on scientific/technological remedies over fundamental social and institutional change. It has thrived in times of mainstream anxiety over genuine or perceived gains of marginalized groups, making it an attractive tool for conservatives. And so decades after litigants and activists, doctors and attorneys proved that African-American, Latino, and Native American women and girls were being singled out for coerced, eugenically informed sterilisation procedures, Norplant began to be forced it on the same communities with the full force of the judiciary and the medical establishment and with the blessing of both conservative politicians and liberal organizations. After generations of queers resisting pathologisation, exactly 25 years after the Stonewall uprising, at the time of increased visibility in the political, social, and cultural realms, The Science of Desire [1] appeared on the scene to cast us as genetically distinct from the rest of humankind. Eugenics is, once again, making a very public ascent."

In the first section of the book, Ordover traces the history, rhetoric and supposed scientific research that was a significant element of race-based eugenics propaganda and legislation. Beginning with early projects intended to keep America free from 'contamination' and 'protected' from the economic pressures of new immigrants, eugenicists sought to prove that Latin American, Asian, eastern and southern European, and North African immigration was a threat to a stable, healthy - and white - population.

"It was Charles Davenport of the American Breeders Association (and later cofounder of the American Eugenics Society) who first suggested ....[using] the Binet test to document the hereditary shortcomings of immigrants to the United States. In 1912 immigrants disembarking at Ellis Island became the first group in the country to whom the IQ tests were administered. ...[this] had a built-in class bias: only those who came steerage were subject to examination. According to his results over 80 percent of all Jewish, Polish, Italian, Hungarian, and Russian immigrants were 'feebleminded defectives'."

The 'research' was undertaken to demonstrate the supposed scientific basis for identifying immigrants, and people of colour, as well as other potential dangers to the idea of a 'superior' primarily Anglo-Saxon nation. As Ordover demonstrates, such supposedly scientific evidence was based on "... stereotyping physical and mental characteristics of outsiders and insisting on recognizable, undeniable, immutable differences between "inferior" and "superior" people. American eugenicists armed with charts, photographs, and even human skulls were there to provide the visual and mathematical support that rendered racism scientifically valid and politically viable."

Eugenicists also used such research to support legislation intended to control 'internal threats' to their ideal nation, such as the poor, the physically and developmentally disabled, the sexual outcasts, African-Americans, prostitutes, alcoholics, addicts, and convicts. Instead of looking at socio-economic reasons for the various inequities they saw, eugenicists sought all their answers in biology, heredity and population statistics. As well, the force of eugenically framed discourses was increasingly aimed at radicals and anarchists, seen primarily as coming from immigrant and other marginalised communities: "These "interlopers," along with American Blacks, were viewed as both contaminated bodies and contaminators of the body politic."

Ordover demonstrates clearly that the current rhetoric aimed at immigrants to America - framing them as intellectually deficient, violent, likely to end up on welfare, a threat to the safety of the state and the jobs of 'real' (that is, white working and middle-class Americans) - is hardly new, nor is the racist construction of American Blacks as lazy, violent, prone to criminal behaviour and lacking in 'white' virtues such as diligence, intelligence, honesty, good decision-making and perseverance. Rather, these stereotypes are the continuation of over a century of eugenicist propaganda.

In the second section of the book, Ordover looks at the ways in which the concept of biological determinism, which has been the basis for eugenicist assaults on the human rights of immigrants and people of colour, has been used both for and against the queer communities in America. She begins by discussing and critiquing research into biological or genetic 'causes' of homosexuality, from hormonal influences on the fetus during pregnancy to differences in brain structures, and noting how this research has been welcomed by segments of the queer community and their allies, as well as those who see 'sexual deviance' as something to be cured.

"The warm reception that greeted these hereditarian hypotheses ... raises two issues: what is it about causation theories that is so appealing to mainstream institutions and heterosexual America?what is it about the research that has so many in the queer community looking to it for deliverance? Mainstream media and its predominantly straight consumers look for a good story; if it holds an unspoken promise of curatives, so much the better. More than that, a focus on what causes queerness eclipses the larger question: who wants to know and why? Significant segments of the gay community, on the other hand, hold that causation theories can be honed into a strategic tool and integrated into a larger legal and political struggle. For many, there may also be personal attachment to biological explanations, a comfort in being able to tell straight family and friends that "we were born that way." The stakes are clearly different but there is a commonality here. Genetic promises have been embraced without interrogation by a community and a larger society eager to accept any quick-fix explanations (and consequent solutions) that modern science had to offer. Whether the hope was for an antidote for homosexuality or homophobia, this embrace typifies the science-as-Savior prism that has created so many determinist enterprises."

As she did in the section of the book dealing with race-focused eugenics, Ordover examines the history of the medicalisation of homosexuality and 'sexual deviance' and the impact of physicians and medical opinions on legislation and mandated treatment of 'deviants.' As it had been with immigrants and American blacks, homosexuality was seen as associated with an inherited tendency to 'degeneracy' and the goal of eugenicists was to eliminate such tendencies from the American gene pool.

"Beginning in the last decades of the 19th century, a flood of state sodomy laws were passed or amended to encompass a greater array of sexual practices. Doctors ... provided a legitimizing presence among lobbyists. There was a certain reciprocity involved as castration and like procedures were transformed from court-mandated penalty to medically endorsed treatment. Physicians saw their diagnoses legally sanctioned and thus their esteem and power consolidated. At the same time, the judicial system was able to mete out corporeal punishment while still appearing to have the best interests of the defendant/patient, the public, and the national gene pool at heart.

One of the most sweeping manifestations of this dynamic was the rash of sterilization statutes enacted by thirty states between 1907 and 1932. In almost every state that legislated sterilization, eugenics boards were convened. Essentially these were medical panels established to grant or deny doctors the right to sterilize anyone with a real or imagined physical or developmental disability. Usually these were prisoners or patients at hospitals or asylums and sometimes they were members of the public at large."

As Ordover notes, at the same time that the idea of sexual deviance as a product of heritable degeneracy was being used to establish court-mandated sterilisation of homosexuals, biological determinism was being adopted by early apologists as a defense of homosexuality.

"Lesbian and gay history is replete with champions who relied on evolutionary or biological arguments to agitate for our civil and human rights. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, for example, pursued this line in the mid 19th century. If homosexuality was recognized as inborn, he reasoned, gays could not be criminally prosecuted. Perhaps choice implied guilt, but the undeniable force of nature should not."

Unfortunately, as Ordover demonstrates, the history of homophobia suggests that focus on physical 'causes' of queerness, whether it be the search for the 'gay gene' or the idea that homosexuality (and by extension, transgender or genderfluid identities) is due to misfiring hormones or congenital abnormalities of the sexual organs, leads to more strategies on how to 'cure' sexual minorities of their 'deviance. Physical and chemical castration, sterilisation, surgical procedures on the brain, hormone 'therapy,' even fetal screening and selected abortion have been recommended, if not always carried out widely.

After examining the history of eugenist discourses and the effect these have had on legislative and other means of 'controlling' the health, purity and safety of the body politic, Ordover turns in the third section of the book to a closer exploration of the allure of the 'technological fix' - the widespread advocation of 'solutions' such as birth control and sterilisation - for eugenicists on both the right and the left. The goals, actions and politics of Margaret Sanger and her associates serve as a casebook study of the ways in which classism and racism influence the policies of the left as well as the right.

"Over the years, Sanger's work and the work of her ideological cohort refashioned eugenics rhetoric into the more palatable language of population control. Early eugenics attestations that society has a vested interest in which children were born of which women solidified in post World War II decades: the continuing investment in the techno fix as remedial to poverty in the United States and abroad, the singling out of entire regions for sterilization campaigns, and the resulting wave of reactionary legislation and welfare policies. Class bias, so central to eugenic policy (and a principal motivator for Sanger) came to the fore. This is not to say that class, in particular reliance on welfare, was a greater determinant than race, but rather that the invocation of economic rationales and the unchallenged vilification of the poor enabled eugenics to go unchecked and unnamed. Class is underscored here in an attempt to counter claims that Sanger and others were not eugenicists because they never publicly uttered racial slurs, and to highlight the vulnerability of low income women who found themselves snagged in various institutional nets (i.e., relief, Medicaid, welfare). An attack on the poor may have seemed more genteel and more viable than an openly racist attack on people of color but ultimately the same women were targeted."

Ordover goes on to document the ways in which poor black, Hispanic and indigenous women, as well as women with disabilities, were targeted by birth control advocates and by both private doctors and state laws which saw sterilisation as a way of reducing the numbers of 'irresponsible' and 'feeble-minded' women bearing children while receiving government assistance. The litany of cases of coerced sterilisation, sterilisation without consent, sterilisation without the knowledge of the victim is chilling, as is the record of forced or uninformed use of potentially dangerous hormonal contraceptives such as Depo-Provera and Norplant and the social and medical pressure in some situations to abort fetuses known to have genetic or other congenital defects. Nor has this latest thrust of eugenicist practice been limited to the United States. As Ordover notes, many foreign aid initiatives and pharmaceutical testing programs have distributed these contraceptives, from Depo-Provera to Quinacrine, to women in developing nations, often without full information on risks, and sometimes without the knowledge or consent of the women.

Ordover has delved deeply into the history of eugenicist theory and its reliance on scientific (or pseudo-scientific) research and technological solutions. In this treatise, she demonstrates the ways in which this continuing assault on the rights and bodies of peoples constructed as not only 'other' but as threats to the social, political, economic and physical health of the nation is manifest in current political, social and legislative action. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia - these are the theories underlying much of the rhetoric from both conservative and liberal camps, and as Ordover definitively shows, eugenics is a significant part of the praxis.

An important book, with much to say about the state of America (and by implication, other nations) today.


[1] The Science of Desire: The search for the gay gene and the biology of behavior, Dean Hamer and Peter Copeland, 1994.

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