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Ask a Eugenicist 
The Sterilization Question

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EugenicsBuildingIn the British Medical Journal (# 7108, September 6, 1997, p. 563) there’s an article entitled “Thousands of women sterilized in Sweden without consent.” The Swedish government is investigating why thousands of women were forcibly sterilized on eugenic grounds from the 1930s to the 1970s. There are similar allegations about forced sterilizations in Switzerland, Austria and Finland. Is this the kind of thing you support?

This conjures up shocking images: a young woman – selected for no good reason – is dragged from her home, kicking and screaming, pinned to the operating table, and sterilized against her will. But it’s really hard to imagine that such things happen in Sweden. Sweden certainly appears to be a highly civilized country. Could it be the case that in every imaginable respect it’s a highly civilized country, except for these isolated, totally atypical acts of barbarism? Or is it possible there’s a higher ethical principle operating here that we can see only if we probe beneath the surface? The sad fact is that there are women in this world who are mentally incompetent (either severely retarded or mentally ill) who are also fertile. They present a serious ethical dilemma. It’s easy to condemn Sweden’s actions, but it’s difficult to find alternatives that are demonstrably better.

There’s a very real danger that if such women aren’t sterilized, they’ll get pregnant, because history has shown that there are plenty of unscrupulous men ready to take advantage of them. In mental institutions, women are sometimes impregnated (“raped” is probably more accurate) by attendants or janitors. Then, the infant is taken away from the mother (is this a good thing?) and given up for adoption. In many cases, the adoptive parents are never informed that the biological mother is a schizophrenic who was raped by an employee of the institution (is this fair to the adopting parents?). Most of the children born of such unions will be alright, but as a group, they are far more likely to develop psychopathologies of various sorts, causing them and their families much unhappiness.

And what, precisely, does the phrase “without consent” mean when talking about mentally incompetent people? By definition, mentally incompetent people cannot make rational decisions on their own. And what if they were to give their consent? What would such consent even mean if they were incapable of understanding what they were consenting to? Maybe the authorities in Sweden realized they’d have to decide the issue of reproduction for these women, just as they must decide many other issues for them. Maybe they didn’t bother to ask permission because they knew it would be meaningless.

Furthermore, it might be asked, “Did these women give their consent to get pregnant, give birth, and have their babies taken away from them?” The answer is “No.”

At the risk of stating the obvious, pregnancy and childbirth, in and of themselves, are not terrific experiences! They involve nausea, depression, mood swings, bladder problems, severe discomfort towards the end (just from being so fat), to say nothing of pain. Surrogate mothers are paid considerable sums of money by infertile couples, presumably because there aren’t lots of women volunteering to do it for free. If, after being pregnant for nine months, a woman delivers a baby and then has it forcibly taken away from her, this is a wrenching experience which is far more traumatic than having a simple operation to prevent pregnancy in the first place, a procedure that many thousands of normal women choose to have each year.

One crucial point must be emphasized: By sterilizing these women, Sweden is not depriving them of the joys of motherhood – they are already denied that by the fact that they would be unfit mothers as a consequence of their severe mental impairment. Rather, society is depriving them of the dubious joys of pregnancy and childbirth, which, as the majority of women would attest, is doing them a big favor. In addition, it’s preventing altogether the heartbreak of having babies taken from their mothers at birth, never to be seen again. (It should be noted parenthetically that the problem of fertility among mentally incompetent men is not nearly as serious because they are rarely able to find sexual partners.)

It’s inappropriate to use words like “coercion” in such a situation because there’s no way of knowing what the women would want if they were rational and could see things clearly. The only sensible and compassionate solution is for the authorities to do for them what most women would want in their position, and most women would much rather not risk getting pregnant if they couldn’t keep the baby.

The mentally incompetent must have decisions made by others for their own good, and for the good of everyone involved, in the area of reproduction, just as in all other facets of their lives. Clearly, it’s in their best interest, and in the best interest of society, if these people do not procreate.



  1. Heidi
    Posted August 1, 2014 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Can eugenics be used to make a new species out of the White race which is not interfertile with the other races? If so, how could it be done?

    • Refocus
      Posted August 2, 2014 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

      A few years ago, somewhere, I read that Watson and Crick, of DNA studies, observed that in ten generations the northern races of Whites, some Chinese and some Japanese would experience a splitting of the DNA molecule thus evolving into a superior set of beings.

  2. PaulShelton
    Posted August 1, 2014 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Anyone who trusts bureaucrats to decide whether someone is mentally competent is a fool.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted August 1, 2014 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

      This is the sort of knee-jerk anti-government animus that makes us all sound like libertarian or Republican fools.

      When I was in school, the local teachers were somehow able to sort all the retards into special ed, even though they were “bureaucrats.”

      • reiner arischer Tor
        Posted August 6, 2014 at 5:43 am | Permalink

        Good point.

  3. Carpenter
    Posted August 1, 2014 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    How about individuals who ARE capable of answering the question, though of course they still would not be of the most sound mind? There’s a very wide range of ability among those who are disabled. I ask because many people with mental disabilities are given a rather large amount of self-determination in the US. Many even vote.

    What I have seen done is that these people have been asked how they feel about such and such a thing and are then essentially guided to the answer that is desired. I guess it makes people feel better and it gives the disabled person the feeling of participation in their own life, etc. So, I suppose there could be a degree of that where a doctor or whoever would explain how hard it would be to have and take care of a child to the person and then the decision would be made “together.”

  4. Dan
    Posted August 1, 2014 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    I agree whole-heartedly that the mentally retarded should be prevented from producing children. However, how does your consent argument work in regards to the rapes by janitors and guards that you mention? As I understand rape, it is having sex with someone without their consent, and applies to the mentally handicapped. If the consent of the mentally feeble is immaterial, are they actually raped per se? Or is this a different kind of sexual assault entirely? In either case, it is a moral problem that we will have to think about.

    Thank you for your articles here!

  5. April
    Posted August 2, 2014 at 1:08 am | Permalink

    I have a retarded cousin who is a few years older than I am. She was caught in the birth canal and suffered retardation due to lack of oxygen during birth. She looked perfectly normal but had/has the capacity of about a 5 year old.

    In the 1970s my uncle had a doctor pretend to do a appendix surgery on her when in actuality he sterilized her by tying her tubes. It was ” understood” that it was the right thing to do since she could never care for a child. The nurses and hospital looked the other way because it was illegal at the time.

    I think it was a really great and forward thinking thing to do.

  6. rhondda
    Posted August 2, 2014 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    While I am in agreement that people with mental illnesses cannot be very good parents (apparently Gloria Steinem’s mother was mentally ill), I have some concerns whether or not mental illness is something that is inherited. This is based totally on my experience, but I have known children(as a social worker) who have a parent who is mentally ill and they are not at all abnormal. In fact they are the most responsible one in the family. So my conclusion to that is that some gene was operative. The thing too is that Thomas Szasz says that mental illness is a myth and not some chemical imbalance in the brain. Gregory Bateson’s double bind theory makes a lot of sense to me for I have known children who wanting to please are totally befuddled by adults and their contradictory demands.
    So I guess what I am wanting to know is how is it proven that mental illness is inherited other than some rationalization that a distant relative was nuts? Is there really a direct causation?

  7. reiner arischer Tor
    Posted August 3, 2014 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    It’s logical that if we as a society are not going to let anyone starve or be deprived of basic needs (including education for their children, basic medical care etc.), then of course society has to have a say in who is allowed to have children. The nature of evolution is that cheating strategies (like those of Gypsies) will appear otherwise, and given enough time (a century or two might suffice) they will overwhelm society.

  8. Posted August 6, 2014 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    Great comments! I’m glad to see so much interest in eugenics! Rhondda asked: “I guess what I am wanting to know is how is it proven that mental illness is inherited.” 

    It’s been proven in several different ways. First, identical twins separated at birth have a high degree of similarity with regard to mental illness – if one has it, the other likely does, too. It’s not 100% by any means, but it’s far too high to occur by chance. Second, children of mentally ill biological parents are much more likely to develop psychopathologies of various kinds, yet the influence of their adoptive parents is either zero or close to zero.

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