Nellie McClung, Sterilization and the return of Eugenics

Saturday April 24th's Globe and Mail references a controversy brewing in Winnipeg around Nellie McClung.  There is opposition to erecting a statue honouring her role in securing the vote for women because of her prominent support of the sterilization of people with disabilities.  Sterilization was one aspect of the eugenics movement.  So was "selective breeding", abortion, incarceration in institutions, exclusion from society, withholding medical care, and euthanasia.

The Winnipeg controversy comes at the same time as the House of Commons voted unanimously on April 21st, 2010 against a Bill proposed by MP Francine Lalonde to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide.

It is worth looking at the roots of the eugenics movement and social Darwinism during the early 20th century.   The eugenics movement was and is a scientific attempt to justify the exclusion and control of people deemed to be morally and intellectually unfit. It starts with people determined to be intellectually limited but progresses to include other groups whose race or actions are judged to be morally inferior. 

From the beginning it was a collusion among the medical, scientific and social science establishments.  One of the most prominent social scientists was Dr. Henry Goddard  His landmark 1912 study on the Kallikak family provided the scientific justification for a view that people with intellectual disabilities (feeble mindedness as he called it) are responsible for immorality and society's ills.  This link between intelligence and morality is the basis of eugenics.  And the tool used to determine whether you are fit or unfit is the  I.Q. score.  This despite the fact intelligence is a mathematical abstraction and even today science is unable to completely quantify intelligence.

Before I go any further I should note that Goddard was found to be a fraud and eventually admitted his crimes.  He doctored his research, invented the facts and even distorted the photos of the mentally handicapped Kallikak family so they would look particularly menacing!  All aspects of this scoundrel and his scandal was comprehensively documented in the Mismeasure of Man by Stephen J. Gould.  You can even see the before and after doctored photos.

But the damage was done.  Here are a few choice phrases from his study: feeble mindedness is responsible for social sores; at best, sterilization is not likely to be a final solution of this problem. If that last phrase sounds familiar – it is.  It was adopted by the Nazis who studied the eugenics movement in North America and based the holocaust on its principles. Before they began exterminating Jews, they began with other groups they considered undesirable i.e. people with disabilities and gypsies.

Those of us, who are parents of sons and daughters with developmental disabilities fear the return of eugenics thinking.  Sterilization laws were on the books in Alberta and BC until the 1970's and institutions still exist in many Canadian provinces.  We fear, I certainly do, that such thinking has not really gone away and that it surfaces during periods of financial constraint.

The issue in Winnipeg is likely to split disability advocates.  Those who are tolerant of McClung argue her deeds and positions should be taken in the context of her times.  A representative of the Canadian Council of Disabilities is quoted in the Globe article: ...historical figures should not be judged by modern standards.  Others argue that the great Tommy Douglas wrote his Masters thesis supporting the sterilization of people with mental or intellectual handicaps.  Douglas at least recanted his earlier views after a 1936 trip to Hitler's Germany. To my knowledge McClung did not. 

That is one more reason why I support Order of Canada Human Rights lawyer David Matas, who dismisses talk of forgiving historical figures as products of their times. To do so would undermine one of the arguments used to secure restitution for historical abuses for example to aboriginal children in residential schools or in institutions for people with disabilities or the internment of Japanese Canadians.

Many disability rights advocates let their support of individual rights cloud their advocacy on behalf of all people with disabilities. Whether they appreciate it or not, they are asserting that eugenics is bad when imposed by a totalitarian state.  But it becomes good when it corresponds to individual choice. 

We can be thankful our political representatives in the House of Commons understand that difference as witnessed by last Wednesday's vote.  They rejected the Bill in a free vote fearing it would take Canada down a slippery slope where people with disabilities and people who are dying would be euthanized without their consent.

NOTE: For further reflections on this topic which never goes away see:

  1. Jacques Dufresne's article on the Appartenance/Belonging website .  Jacques is a good friend and wise philosopher who sees the deeper patterns of logic and contradictions amidst our popular beliefs and positions.  This particular article examines the limitations of a society based exclusively on individual choice.
  2. Gregor Wolbring's Bioethics and Disability website.  Calgary based Wolbring has thalidomide himself and has devoted his life to researching and writing about a range of ethical issues from bio-ethics, geo-engineering, immortality research, genetics, and the quest for perfection.

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    Hi Al,
    This is very timely. My only additional comment is that when the sterilization records were examined in Alberta, it was found that something like 85% of the victims were aboriginal. Genocide?

  2. Sean moore

    Excellent piece on a difficult subject.

  3. john

    Great post Al. I’ve heard you speak of this before, but now I ahve the context. Thanks.

  4. Lyb

    Well done thank-you for this information on a very disturbing subject.

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