The History of Eugenics isn’t as Historical as it Should Be

This morning the following tweet caught my attention

I can’t argue with the premise, eugenics and eugenic ideals are indeed alive and well. However the methods haven’t always gotten more sophisticated.

Back in the day when countries like Canada and the United States had openly eugenic policies. They were ostensibly meant to stop people, usually labelled feeble-minded (I use this word only because it was the term in use at the time) from having children. It was believed that traits like intelligence were genetic and if such people were allowed to continue having children that they would just be creating burdens for the state. Intelligence was also linked to criminality so they thought it would have an impact on the crime rate as well.

In practice people with disabilities were certainly targeted and suffered from being forcibly sterilized (and often institutionalization).

However because eugenics was based on the premise that intelligence was hereditary by association things like wealth and success were seen as evidence of genetic superiority. This lead to eugenics policies targeting people we would no longer consider disabled.

Basically eugenics was used as a way to pathologize poverty. Some of the people most likely to be targeted were poor women of colour.

Unfortunately this demographic is also still at risk of being targeted for forced sterilization.

Recently there have been a couple of cases in Saskatchewan that have come to light where poor women have been coerced into being sterilized. Often closely following the birth. One woman tells how she was told that she would not be allowed to leave the hospital until she agreed to the procedure (a threat often used historically against women in institutions).

As recently as 2010 prisons in California were sterilizing female prisoners. This is not as shocking (though utterly indefensible) when you consider that the 1927 sterilization case Buck v. Bell still holds legal precedent in the United Stated and has never been over turned (seriously Americans get on that).

Canada is however a different story, while we share the shameful history of forced sterilization it is supposed to be explicitly banned. The 1986 Supreme Court ruling in E (Mrs.) v. Eve set a precedent more progressive than any other country.

Using a citizenship model, the court found that Eve was a citizen of Canada and that none of her rights could be infringed upon regardless of her level of intelligence, including reproductive rights. The court was very specific, they rejected the idea that someone could be sterilized without consent if it was believed they might find symptoms of puberty distressing (such as menstruation). An argument that has worked elsewhere. Further they rejected Mrs. E’s argument that if Eve had a child that it would fall to her to care for and she should be protected from this potential burden. Effectively saying that potential burden was not a strong enough ground on which to infringe on the rights of someone else.

Basically nonconsensual sterilization is completely forbidden in Canada. The only exception being in cases of medical necessity. The thresh hold for medical necessity being a life threatening situation. So in theory in Canada a person can only be sterilized without consent if they meet both of two criteria. First that they are unable to consent to the procedure AND they may die if the sterilization doesn’t go ahead.

In reality as the cases in Saskatchewan show, this standard is not being followed. There are also cases involving patients under custodial care who have undergone the procedure because lower court judges dismiss the Eve case as being to far reaching.

The Saskatchewan cases clearly show that the 1986 ruling had it right (and it’s not because the victims aren’t disabled). Don’t believe me read the comments (or don’t I’m already scarred).

Basically, they boil down to two issues. People disregard the clear coercion involved and fixate on the fact that a permission form was signed. This is bad enough but then there are the people who make moral judgements about the women. They gripe about how many children she has and complain about the burden she is placing on the system. Basically they are recycling the old eugenic arguments that targeted poor women under the eugenics legislation that was repealed in 1972.

The reason the Eve ruling is so easily ignored whether the victim is disabled or just poor is because people find it all to easy to see people not like them as the “other” and rationalize clawing back hard won rights.

So while as the twitter comment above is right and some eugenic arguments have gotten more sophisticated (*cough* human genome project *cough*).

The old ones are alive and well and being argued in Canada (and likely elsewhere).


***For further information on eugenics see

Angus McLaren’s “Our Own Master Race

The National Film Board of Canada’s documentary “The Sterilization of Leilanie Muir

Leilanie Muir also has a memoir (though I haven’t had time to read it yet–PhD problems), “A Whisper Past

Add more in the comments, particularly anything from outside Canada please.


Please Stop Simultaneously Bringing Attention to and Minimizing Examples of Passive Oppression

First off lets define what I mean by passive oppression. I am referring to those instances of bigotry that people unaffected by the oppression don’t see as problematic. These actions are usually brushed off with a “oh I didn’t mean it that way” or “It was Just a joke, lighten up”. The thing that makes passive oppression so insidious is that people don’t take it seriously and the ideas that they perpetuate get normalized and robs the people affected of being able to define what is and isn’t harmful to them.

Perhaps one of the most common forms of passive oppression is how euphemisms or words that describe either a psychiatric diagnosis or a person with a psychiatric diagnosis are more commonly used to describe things or social situations that are in fact entirely unrelated to mental illness. This is most frequently used in negative connotations but it is not uncommon to hear defenses that the terms were being used positively.

This was most recently highlighted by HBO show host John Oliver when he condemned the practice in a segment on his show Last Week Tonight.

The point is easy to see in the context of how people with psychiatric diagnoses are unfairly stigmatized in relation to acts of violence. But what happens when is occurs in the the cute and fuzzy realm of celebrating Christmas?

This Huffington Post piece talks about how Target is experiencing some backlash for selling a sweater that reads “OCD Obsessive Christmas Disorder”. Some people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the condition that the sweater is referencing are justifiably unimpressed with how the co-opting of the Acronym and clear reference to the diagnosis, minimizes their experiences.

This is where the “we didn’t mean it like that” mentality rears its ugly head. As Target has released a faux apology and refused to stop selling the sweaters.

For the most part the Huffington Post does a decent job of covering the controversy, they share the voices of those impacted and then share Target’s response. Were the article gets sketchy is in the last two sentences.

Between this and the Starbucks Christmas cups controversy, it looks like the holidays are off to a rocky start.

So what do you think? Is this sweater offensive? Or are people being too sensitive? Sound off in the comments below.

I’ll seal with the last sentence first. Simply by inviting people to debate whether people have the right to feel offended by the sweater is deeply problematic. It effectively polices people who particularly in this case are already marginalized by invalidating their right to have and express genuine emotions.

The issue that truly minimizes the effect of passive oppression here though is how the article ends by connecting this issue with the “controversy” of how the Star Bucks Christmas cup that isn’t Christmasy enough for some people.

I bring this up not to shame those who are offended by the cup. I won’t police people’s reactions to things (even though I have an opinion on it). The big issue here is not to debate whether Christianity is under attack and whether Christians are oppressed in North America, they’re not (don’t believe me? read this take-down by an actual Christian on why this Star Bucks situation is ridiculous) but rather to place the debate around the Target Sweater and the Christmas cups in the same frame.

Regardless of which side of the cup debate you are on it is hard to deny that the most common reaction to the issue is one of derision and mockery. By placing the sweater debate in that context it is basically saying the offense over it is unwarranted.

That framing in conjunction with the invitation to debate whether the offense is an over-reaction effectively minimizes the issue the article was bringing attention to.

Add to that the fact that it isn’t hard to argue that Star Bucks is not oppressing Christians by having a still clearly Christmas themed cup (consider the time frame in which it is available and the colours which are clearly associated with Christmas). The conclusion to the Huffington Post article is basically an invitation to disregard the entirely different situation involving target. People with psychiatric diagnoses are much more objectively oppressed in society.

So while I won’t tell people how they can or cannot feel on either issue. In the case of Target I will say that if you are not a person with a DSM diagnosis, your opinion doesn’t matter and you absolutely don’t get to say whether someone is over-reacting to something that does actually affect them.


Tainting the Poppy: Remembrance Day and Sheltered Worshops

So Remembrance Day is around the corner and for the first year of my life, I am making a conscious choice not to wear one of those poppies that are available in exchange for a donation. I don’t think I can look at those plastic poppies the same way again.

It is not that I have changed my opinion on the importance of remembering the horrors of war and keeping those losses and the ideologies that lead to them at the forefront of the social consciousness. this is not a rant against Remembrance Day or a commentary on veterans.

I just learned that in Ontario, those ubiquitous plastic poppies are sometimes assembled in sheltered workshops. These are places where disabled people work for subminimum wage, segregated from the rest of society.

I cannot in good conscious wear a symbol to honour the past, that was created by a system that systematically segregates and devalues people in the present.

Instead of wearing one of those mass produced poppies I will instead purchase a poppy brooch, that I can be assured was not manufactured in a sheltered workshop.