Eugenics and Human Rights

The International Community of Banyakigezi (ICOB)
held its 6th Convention in New York in August 2008. One of the
topics that came up in formal and informal discussions was the population dynamics
in Uganda. Some argued very strongly that unless the population ‘explosion’ was
brought under control – and very quickly – the human quality was bound to
suffer. This was reminiscent of the arguments put forward by the supporters of

Eugenics is
the science of improving the human population by controlled breeding for
desirable inherited characteristics. Thus, eugenicists are interested in producing
a better class of people through selective breeding. To achieve this goal, the
eugenics movement advocated forced sterilization of men and women who exhibited
inter-generationally transmitted diseases and disabilities or were of marginal

Some have argued that an increase in the number of
people inevitably leads to an increase in the number of the poor in society. For
example the numbers of the poor in England had increased so significantly that
by 1883, Francis Galton, expressed grave concern about the genetic stock of that
nation. In his book entitled Inquiries
into Human Faculty and its Development,
he introduced the idea that intelligence
is an inherited trait. He subsequently developed the science of eugenics to
promote that idea and a movement was established to promote it. Eugenicists
came from society’s upper strata believing that the strength of the ‘race’ was
being undermined by the poorest members who were producing the largest number
of children. To avoid undermining the genetic stock, the ‘racially fit’ members
of society were encouraged to have more children and the poorest or least fit members
to undergo abortions and sterilization in order to reduce their numbers.
Notwithstanding these efforts, the wealthy remained fewer than the poor.

As part of the debate, it has been argued that
nations and races, like species of animals, were locked in a struggle for
existence in which only the fittest would survived. History had shown that a
high state of civilization had developed as a result of struggle of races and the
survival of the physically and mentally fitter race. Therefore the superior
race should completely drive out the inferior one wherever the latter existed.
That way a gradual progress of mankind to higher intellectual and physical
efficiency would be achieved.

While selective breeding had succeeded in livestock
and chickens, society was still allowing the worst to have the most children. Eugenic
science especially appealed to Fabian socialists. They saw the science as a
further justification for abolishing classes in society. Statesmen were
therefore called upon to ensure that the breeding of poor people was
controlled. In Britain campaigns were
conducted for compulsory sterilization of the mentally handicapped but the law
to that effect was not passed.

In the United States of America, states passed laws
allowing mandatory sterilization and more than 100,000 Americans were affected under
these compulsory-sterilization laws. Influenced by eugenics, Congress was
helped to formulate the 1924 Immigration Act, “which kept but ‘inferior’ people
from Southern and Eastern Europe”. However, by the mid-1960s, sterilization
laws had finally fallen into disuse and several states issued apologies.

Other countries including Canada, Denmark, Finland,
France, Sweden, Norway and Japan passed sterilization laws. In many countries control over the size of
families was exercised by various means including the pill and condoms.

In South Africa, eugenicists were white supremacists
preoccupied with the maintenance of an unequal social and racial order. They believed that the white race was experiencing
an erosion in quality which if not checked would render it unable to withstand
‘swamping’ by the far larger black population. The cause of white degeneration
was the proliferation of poor whites whose growing numbers were draining the
race of strength and vitality and sinking to the level of the African, thereby
eroding the line dividing white from black. Therefore poor whites had to
practice birth control in order that whites would remain fit. They opposed
social welfare programs which preserved the unfit in society.

As recently as in the 1960s some voices maintained
that people of African lineage were 2000,000 years behind those of fairer
complexion. There are other voices advocating that smaller families should be for
the citizens of the less-developed countries, who happened to be predominantly
black, yellow, and brown, rather than white. Furthermore, within any country,
the program should aim mainly at those below the local and westernized middle

Advocating family planning has run into difficulties in
part because the advocates came largely from former colonial powers and the
idea has raised suspicions when many developed countries are encouraging larger
families .

Although the Eugenic movement began with good
intentions what was achieved was a human-rights catastrophe. There is nothing
wrong with family planning or birth control per se provided coercion is not
employed. An individual who voluntarily chooses sterilization or other methods is
doing no harm whatever the motive. The problem arises when one individual
orders or misleads another to be sterilized or to use other means to control
the birth of a child. This could lead to serious problems including genocide. Genocide
is defined as any act including imposing measures intended to prevent births
within the group – such as of poor people – and thereby depriving them of their
human right to freely determine the number of children they want.