Victims of forced sterilisation deserve a more convincing advocate

Victims of forced sterilisation deserve a more convincing advocate

Jamal Hakim, Managing Director of Marie Stopes Australia, has called for redress for women who were sterilised without their consent because of a disability. The call is prompted by revelations from the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with a Disability which, according to Hakim’s information, heard “that children as young as seven were sterilised because of their disability, such as having vision impairments”.

While we should absolutely condemn forced sterilisation, the hypocrisy of Marie Stopes Australia in lecturing the government on the harms caused by such policies needs to be called out. The modern abortion industry might wish to pose as heroes of the downtrodden but until they can disconnect themselves from the eugenics movement that brought them forth, and while they continue to injure women in their own clinics, they have no business to be lecturing anyone else about ethics.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, modern abortionists scrambled to draw a veil over their connection with eugenicists. Planned Parenthood Foundation denounced their founder, Margaret Sanger, as a racist. Marie Stopes International rebranded itself “MSI reproductive choices”, downplaying the honour they formerly accorded Sanger’s British counterpart and protégé. To anyone familiar with the history of the eugenics movement, however, these are only the most recent examples of an established modus operandi that has, for decades, enabled the eugenics movement to evade public censure by periodically denouncing itself and claiming to have turned over a new leaf, without ever actually altering course.

A similar flurry of rebranding occurred in the aftermath of WWII to create the impression of distance between unpopular Nazi policies and ongoing advocacy for eugenics in the USA and Britain. The “British Eugenics Society” became the “Galton Institute”; “Eugenics Quarterly” became “Social Biology” and, in New South Wales, the “Racial Improvement Society” founded in 1926 and renamed the “Racial Hygiene Association” in 1928, changed its name yet again to “Family Planning NSW”. The strategy of rebranding even has a name. IPPF’s first Director General, C. P. Blacker (who was hand-picked by Sanger for the job), referred to this as “crypto-eugenics”, explaining that this allowed you “to fulfill the aims of eugenics without disclosing what you are really aiming at and without mentioning the word”.

Strategies recommended by eugenicists ranged from “positive eugenics” – selective breeding and encouragement for those with “superior genetics” to have babies – through to “negative eugenics”, which includes strategies either to limit or to actively reduce the number of “the unfit”. Negative eugenics might refer to anything from reproductive discouragement, to forced sterilisation and even the “lethal selection” policies implemented officially by Hitler but unofficially by the American eugenicists from whom he drew his inspiration.

The Australian eugenics movement was pioneered by Richard Berry, Professor of Anatomy at Melbourne University from 1903. In 1929 Berry returned to his native Britain where he continued to preach his uncompromising theory of “rotten heredity”. In 1934 he would argue that to eliminate mental deficiency would require the sterilisation of twenty-five per cent of the population. The Eugenics Society of Victoria that Berry founded continued the work of lobbying the government for change. A “Mental Deficiency” Bill, presented to the Parliament in 1926 and 1929 by the Victorian Premier Stanley Argyle was eventually passed unanimously in 1939. Only the outbreak of the war and, later, the embarrassment of the Holocaust, prevented this Bill ever being enacted.

Many champions of the modern eugenics movement appear to be unaware of these connections or else are sincerely persuaded by the intermittent protestations of public contrition from crypto-eugenicists. This is to ignore the fact that “birth control” and eugenics are inextricably linked. As Sanger herself insisted: “the campaign for birth control is not merely of eugenic value, but is practically identical in ideal with the final aim of eugenics”. Once you decide to start limiting the population, it is then almost impossible to avoid selecting for some traits and deselecting for others: in a word, eugenics. We could point to the great reduction in Downe syndrome in Iceland, following the introduction of screening methods that facilitate early detection and result – almost always – in abortion, as a modern example of eugenics in action. However they might try to disguise it, abortion providers are the modern agents of the eugenics they claim to decry just as much as they were in the past.

Australian law and practice is now clear that informed consent is necessary before individuals can be sterilised. That is not to say these intentions are perfectly reflected in practice or that there are not persuasive arguments to be made for laws that would expressly prohibit forced sterilisation. If women and girls have been sterilised against their will in Australia then clearly there are grounds for redress. But we must also observe that, historically, the loudest advocacy for forced sterilisation has come from precisely the same eugenical organisations that now pose as advocates for the victims of these policies. It is not for Marie Stopes Australia to piously lecture the government. Women who have been the victims of forced sterilisation deserve a more convincing advocate.

Women’s Forum Australia is an independent think tank that undertakes research, education and public policy advocacy on issues affecting women and girls, with a particular focus on addressing behaviours and practices that are harmful and abusive to them. We are a non-partisan, non-religious, tax-deductible charity. We do not receive any government funding and rely solely on donations to make an impact. Support our work today.

I’ll stand with women ▷