Katherine Quarmby offers a critical framing of the stigma attached to sexuality and people with disabilities, both historically and today. The article draws on the work of Dr. Tom Shakespeare, author of the seminal The Sexual Politics of Disability. Eugenics’ hereditary ideas of “fit” and “unfit” bodies was crucial in creating the pervasive trope of “contamination” that Shakespeare identifies as one of four tropes surrounding sexuality and people with disabilities.
“Asexual, hypersexual, perverse and contaminated: these four damaging tropes from history combine to form a bitter legacy for disabled people.”
See also: Sins Invalid, a national performance project that uses performance art as a platform to reframe conversations about sexuality and disability through an intersectional LGBTQ and people of color lens.
We’re happy to share professional documentation of “The Normal”: Images from the Haunted Files of Eugenics, a public installation that was on view at the NYU Kimmel Windows Gallery from October 31, 2014 through January , 2015. The installation drew from public displays and propaganda of the American eugenics movement, which distilled the “objective” research of institutions like the Eugenics Record Office into visceral imagery and familiar racial, gendered, and ableist stereotypes.
Click the image below to see images from the installation. Image credits: GION Studio.
The State of Virginia has passed legislation that would offer financial compensation to victims of the state’s eugenic sterilization program, which forcibly sterilized over 8,000 Virginians deemed “unfit” to reproduce from the 1920s through 1970s. Reports indicate that only 11 surviving victims have been identified, and will each receive a $25,000 compensation. This makes Virginia the second state to address the crimes of forced sterilization through compensation. In 2012, North Carolina announced similar plans to compensate surviving victims of forced sterilization. Payments began in 2014, though the process has been riddled with red tape and loopholes that some say are preventing sterilization victims from receiving their proper compensation.
Virginia passed its Eugenic Sterilization Act in 1924, alongside a “Racial Integrity Act” which made it “unlawful for any white person in [Virginia] to marry any [person] save a white person.” Battles over the legality of the state’s sterilization law culminated in 1927, when the Supreme Court ruled eugenic sterilization constitutional in the infamous ruling in the case Buck v. Bell. Eugenics sterilization laws proliferated after the ruling. Eventually over 30 states adopted compulsory sterilization bills motivated by eugenics.
Though the eugenics movement fell out of popular favor with the onset of World War II, Virginia’s sterilization act remained on the books until 1979. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, the law was increasingly used to target Black women within the welfare system.
The expanding use of biometric technologies (facial recognition, fingerprinting, DNA recognition, palm vein pattern recognition…) by government and law enforcement agencies poses new questions at the intersections of ethics, technology, policing, and surveillance. Far from some imagined future police state, the real-world applications are taking place here and now. Dubai police are equipped with Google Glass with facial recognition software to help track down suspects. Meanwhile, the F.B.I. is rolling out a $1.2 billion “Next Generation Identification” system, equipping 62 police departments with handheld iris and facial recognition devices.
Enter artist Zach Blas, who has designed a series of aesthetically captivating masks that serve the practical purpose of shielding subjects from potential facial recognition technology, while making a poignant political statement against unethical government policing and surveillance.
“I think one of the things that you’re seeing, when you ask about the potential ramifications of this, is you’re seeing a really odd return to pseudo-scientific endeavors of the 19th century.
Things like anthropometry, physiognomy, phrenology, methods that were popularized by Alphonse Bertillon, Cesare Lombroso, Francis Galton, certain criminologists who would measure criminal skulls to say, “Here’s what the average criminal skull looks like.”
You’re seeing a really weird history-repeating-itself moment with things like that coming back, but of course they’re executed under the guise of high-tech biometrics, so they’re not as questioned because there’s this high-tech sheen to these technologies that I think a lot of people believe are utterly scientifically objective. I think that’s one of the central problems, that biometrics propagate a certain way of understanding identity where you can scan the surface of the body digitally, fully quantify it, and gain some kind of core truth about a person. And you now see that permeating in a lot of different ways.”
The anti-vaccination movement, driven by fallacious claims that routine vaccinations can cause autism in children, is under renewed fire as a new outbreak of measles hits California, the epicenter of both the current outbreak and the “anti-vaxxer” movement.
Here, David Shih argues that the anti-vaccination movement should be read through the lens of race, white privilege, and the historical pathologization of blackness:
“Blackness has long been perceived as a public health threat, as the recent hysteria over Ebola has demonstrated. I believe that whiteness–not white people in and of themselves, to be clear–as defined by Harris, the settled expectations of white privilege as protected by law, is contributing to a new public health threat. A productive way to understand whiteness as property is to try to think of ways that black Americans’ settled expectations for life, liberty, and happiness are not codified in the law. Whose expectations are served by policies such as “broken windows” and “stop-and-frisk”? Or by the Bloomington city attorney bringing charges against Mall of America protesters? If the measles and whooping cough outbreaks get massive media attention partly because of their potential impact on white communities (compared to the Ebola virus before it crossed the Atlantic), then we might also investigate whiteness as part of the cause, a call to research that I hope this blog will sound. Whiteness as property is only one way to imagine the intersection of race with class when considering how power animates public health emergencies such as the measles outbreak.”
On November 20, 2014, the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU hosted “Return of the Unfit: A Gathering to Locate, Challenge, & Exorcise Our Eugenic Ghosts” as part of the Haunted Files project.
Artists, activists, and academics joined forces to trace the lineages of American nativism, racism, and ableism through readings, performance, music, and analysis. The program featured scholar Awam Amkpa (NYU Department of Social & Cultural Analysis), poet and activist Sonia Guinansaca (New York State Youth Leadership Council and CultureStrike), historian and lawyer Paul A. Lombardo (Georgia State University), author and activist N. Ordover (American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism), writer Tommy “Teebs” Pico (absentMINDR), social justice activist and expert Loretta Ross (co-founder, SisterSong), scholar Dean Saranillio (NYU Department of Social & Cultural Analysis), composer and producer Sxip Shirey, and musician and educator/activist Sonny Singh (Red Baraat).
Why are some lives valued (and protected) more than others? How is value and worth accorded based on normative, hierarchical understandings of ability?
In 2002, disability rights activist and attorney Harriet McBryde Johnson accepted an invitation to debate Princeton professor and moral philosopher Peter Singer at Princeton University. Singer, best known for his writings on animal rights/liberation theory, was (and remains) notorious amongst disability activists for his belief that parents should ethically be able to euthanize their disabled children during infancy so that they can be replaced by nondisabled babies who have a “greater chance at happiness.” Johnson, who used a motorized wheelchair due to neuromuscular disease, was a longtime advocate for disability rights, working alongside organizations such as Not Dead Yet.
In 2003, Johnson published an incredible, long-form account of her conversations with Singer in The New York Times Magazine. The account presents two fundamentally opposed worldviews: Singer’s “logics” of preference, quality of life, and devaluation of the life worth of people with disabilities (perhaps not dissimilar from eugenicists’ calls for “efficiency” and the “social good”), and Johnson’s call for self-determination and support for the potentially rich and fruitful lives of people with disabilities.
Read the full essay here. Selected excerpts are included below.
“It is a chilly Monday in late March, just less than a year ago. I am at Princeton University. My host is Prof. Peter Singer, often called — and not just by his book publicist — the most influential philosopher of our time. He is the man who wants me dead. No, that’s not at all fair. He wants to legalize the killing of certain babies who might come to be like me if allowed to live. He also says he believes that it should be lawful under some circumstances to kill, at any age, individuals with cognitive impairments so severe that he doesn’t consider them ”persons.” What does it take to be a person? Awareness of your own existence in time. The capacity to harbor preferences as to the future, including the preference for continuing to live.”
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“It is an interesting exchange. In the lecture hall that afternoon, Singer lays it all out. The ”illogic” of allowing abortion but not infanticide, of allowing withdrawal of life support but not active killing. Applying the basic assumptions of preference utilitarianism, he spins out his bone-chilling argument for letting parents kill disabled babies and replace them with nondisabled babies who have a greater chance at happiness. It is all about allowing as many individuals as possible to fulfill as many of their preferences as possible.”
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“In the discussion that follows, I argue that choice is illusory in a context of pervasive inequality. Choices are structured by oppression. We shouldn’t offer assistance with suicide until we all have the assistance we need to get out of bed in the morning and live a good life. Common causes of suicidality — dependence, institutional confinement, being a burden — are entirely curable. Singer, seated on my right, participates in the discussion but doesn’t dominate it. During the meal, I occasionally ask him to put things within my reach, and he competently complies.”
Eugenics itself varied from nation to nation, and within nations positions varied. Both Wells and Shaw were Fabian socialists who disdained the raggedness of the working class and sought in eugenics a means to attain socialism through gradualist reforms while supporting British imperialism. They were a forerunners to the contemporary Labour Party. This essay by Jenny Jopson explores their different positions as Fabian eugenicists.
Newsweek’s recent article “How to Defuse the Population Bomb” confronts an old subject with a frustratingly uncritical eye. The piece details the much-discussed problem of overpopulation with a focus on its environmental and economic implications. It paints a troubling picture of a poor, dirty, and overcrowded “Africa” (referred to en masse as often as by specific countries). The answer to avoiding an even more overburdened, resource-starved earth? Massively increase birth control accessibility and family planning education in the Global South. While informed, consensual access to birth control ought to be a worldwide right, the uncritical, alarmist discourse around population control deployed here fails to incorporate a critical historical lens.
The article makes a brief foray into the history of birth control via Western intervention in the non-white world, linked to the slave trade and the era of formal colonization in the African continent. But the historical analysis stops there, before reaching the 20th century and the insidious modern history of continued Western intervention into family planning in the developing world—a history linked to eugenics and population control.
The American eugenics movement of the early 20th century was largely concerned with domestic issues of “race suicide”—the perceived demographic shift away from a white Anglo-American majority due to immigration and variable reproductive rates between racial groups. But this domestic demographic crisis was clearly linked to a parallel crisis happening at a global scale. Imperial rhetoric employed in works like Lothrop Stoddard’s hugely influential The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy was amplified by the notion that population growth in the non-white world would outstrip that of the “civilized nations.” International policymaking and philanthropy, coupled with alliances between eugenicists, neo-Malthusians, and other population control camps, would follow. The 1925 Sixth International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conference in New York brought together a critical mass of parties interested in global population control. Foundational international birth control organizations such as International Planned Parenthood Federation and Pathfinder International were borne out of the intersections of the eugenics, birth control, and population control movements and the wallets of eugenically minded philanthropists like Clarence Gamble. For decades, Gamble’s Pathfinder International oversaw the distribution of untested and unsafe birth control methods throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, while funding staffing at Puerto Rico’s Family Planning Association, which advocated for sterilization as an alternative to contraception. Coupled with the implementation of Harry H. Laughlin’s “model eugenic sterilization law” in 1936, one-third of Puerto Rican women would be sterilized by 1968. Rushed, dangerous, and ill-informed contraception initiatives, such as the one undertaken in India in the 1970, were consistently pushed and funded by American interests.
All in the name of “population control” and cloaked in arguments of economic development, environmental sustainability, women’s rights…
Even today, the distribution of a little-known and under-tested drug called Quinacrine, has been cited as the “newest tool in a decades-long movement of coercive sterilization.” As reported by the Center for New Community, a racial justice research institution, the push for distribution of Quinacrine in the developing world is linked to contemporary far-right anti-immigrant organization and key players in the history of eugenics and population control.
The point is not a simplistic assertion that calls for population control are akin to calls for eugenics or neo-eugenics. Rather, we urge contemporary conversations about population control to consider critically the history of how eugenics operated within the population control movement, soiling a potentially beneficial project with racism, abuse, and violence. Alarmist calls for population control are more likely to repeat the mistakes of the past than are critical, historically nuanced conversations. Even more, when it comes to conversations about very real problems of resource depletion and poverty, we have to wonder why difficult questions of resource re-distribution and overconsumption tend to be passed over for the easy tropes of “too many Africans.” The implications of the privileging of Western luxury over “third world” bodies are hard to ignore.
Hansen, Randall and King, Desmond. “Eugenics and World Population Control.” In Sterilized by the State: Eugenics, Race, and the Population Scare in Twentieth-Century North America.
James D. Watson, the former director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (which was once the base of the Eugenics Record Office), has successfully sold his 1962 Nobel Prize for the discovery of DNA’s double-helix for $4.1 million. Watson, who was director of the genetic research facility at CSHL beginning in 1968, and later served as president, chancellor and chancellor emeritus, is planning on giving the proceeds to several universities and CSHL.
Watson is trying to revamp his image, which was tarnished by controversial statements about race and intelligence in recent years. In a 2007 interview with The Sunday Times of London Magazine, Watson, discussing Africa stated, “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours, whereas all the testing says not really.” He went on to suggest that black employees were not equal to whites. As a consequence, Watson says, he has been shunned by the academic community.
In an interesting turn of events, the medal was purchased by Russian mogul Alisher Usmanov, who plans to return the medal to Watson. “In my opinion, a situation in which an outstanding scientist has to sell a medal recognizing his achievements is unacceptable,” Usmanov said in a statement. “James Watson is one of the greatest biologists in the history of mankind and his award for the discovery of DNA structure must belong to him.”