Some Notes on Eugenics

Osagie Obasogie, Professor at the University of California Hastings Law School, says it well in this sweet new 4-min video by the Center for Genetics and Society (CGS) in Berkeley:

“When I speak with colleges, grad students and professional schools, and I ask them about the eugenics movement, oftentimes they’re not aware how much that movement originated in the United States. Having this deeper context to understand this long history of science being used or misused and abused to justify the oppression of other groups is important to understand how what many people consider to be good intentions can often have bad outcomes for certain populations and certain groups.”



In “Race Under the Microscope,” Emily Beitiks with Biopolitical Times asks us:

“How and why do long-discredited biological explanations of socially-defined race maintain a presence within scientific and medical research? How do misguided research practices and policies lay foundations for technologies, discourses and public understandings that foster biological assumptions about race?”

Why I am glad you asked, Emily. Significantly, what is at stake in a given project like eugenics depends upon the conditions of its arrival. So let’s start with the basics: Sir Francis Galton is known as one of the “founding fathers” of eugenics, he’s also Charles Darwin’s cousin–you know, Darwin, (thinking back to high school biology…) evolutionary theorist, known for his work on what he calls “natural selection.”

Galton claims: “Eugenics is the study of all agencies under social control which can improve or impair the racial quality of future generations.”

What were some founding goals of U.S. Eugenics at the turn of the twentieth century?

  • Create a superior Nordic race.
  • Sterilize 14 million in the U.S. and millions worldwide.
  • Eradicate the “lowest tenth” until only Nordics left.

U.S. Organizations and Funders
Organizations:

  • American Breeders Association, 1903.
  • J. H. Kellogg’s Race Betterment Foundation, 1906.
  • Eugenics Record Office, 1910.

Eugenic record office

  • Galton Society, 1918.
  • American Eugenics Society, 1921.

Gilded Age Funding:

  • Harriman family (railroad).
  • Rockefeller (Standard Oil), also funded Nazi program.
  • Carnegies (steel) funded Cold Spring Harbor, NY eugenics laboratory.

Eugenic Leaders

  • Charles Davenport: zoologist and biologist, wrote the book Heredity in Relation to Eugenics (1911) where he surmises that “all men are created bound by their protoplasmic makeup and unequal in their powers and responsibilities.”
  • Harry Laughlin: publicist, known for his unrelenting advocacy for U.S. eugenic policies of compulsory sterilization legislation. He bethinks, “In the long run, military conquest by a superior people would be highly preferable to a conquest by immigration by peoples with inferior stock endowments.”

Racial Classifications
“Dysgenic”

  • Immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe (enacted strictest immigration laws ever).
  • People of color in the U.S. (segregation and miscegenation laws – sterilization).
  • “Feeble-minded,” poor, uneducated, people with disabilities, blind, deaf, “promiscuous” (segregation and sterilization).

Slight detour: linking the past to the present. Disability, deviance, and “feeble-mindedness.”

  • As a historically contingent and contradictory process, the threat of deviance is stereotyped and pathologized as the cause of criminal and immoral behavior, thus in need of discipline and control so that one’s “deviance” may be protected from society and moreover so society be protected from non-normal bodies and minds. For instance, eugenic ideology renders neurological variations as pathological cognitive impairment, or what is currently known as developmental disability, which presumes an inherent inferiority in mindedness.
  • In her essay “Docile Bodies, Docile Minds,” Licia Carlson investigates the ways in which institutions and asylums at the turn of the twentieth century depended upon and perpetuated the contingent nature of contradictions within the category of mental retardation itself. She writes, “The institutions, as protective and productive sites of disciplinary power, perpetuated the view of feeblemindedness as both a helplessly static fate and an improvable, dynamic condition.” Historically it is believed that, as pathology, such non-normalcy is a hereditary “helplessly static fate” and thus reproducible; hence the hyper-regulation and disciplining of non-normal bodies working through sexuality and reproductive capacity (like Harry Laughlin’s proposed legislations around compulsory sterilization). Pervasive reproductive surveillance of cognitively disabled people continues today, portraying people with neurological variation as infantile sub-humans who remain “unfit” to be proper parents.

“Eugenic”

  • Eugenicists believed in an extremely narrow definition of “fitness.” A eugenic family was (according to THEIR definitions!) intelligent, healthy, Nordic (or at least Teutonic or Anglo-Saxon), and prolific breeders.

Social context: Immigration
Massive immigration: fears of disease, many Americans feared labor competition from cheaper immigrant labor, rise of socialism, labor unrest (hmm… sound familiar? U.S./Mexico border, anyone?).

Immigration Laws
1920, Eugenicist Harry Laughlin testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Immigration and Naturalization.

  • “Immigrant women are more prolific than our American women.”
  • Immigrant “blood” threatened to “weaken the stock” of Americans.

Immigration Restriction Act of 1924

  • Halt the immigration of supposedly “dysgenic” Italians and eastern European Jews.
  • Number of immigrants from each country in proportion to their % of the U.S. population 1890 census (northern and western Europeans).
  • Quota of southern and eastern Europeans reduced from 45% to 15%.
  • Repealed by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

Eugenics Popularization: Church, EDUCATION, Fairs, Films, Conferences, Books.

Prestigious U.S. universities like Stanford, Yale, Harvard, The University of Chicago, and Princeton were pioneers in eugenic “scientific” knowledge production, and many eugenic practices continue today in genetic testing.

Eugenics and disciplinary knowledge production

Fitter Families Contests, from eugenicsarchive.org:

  • When one considers the strong contribution of agricultural breeding to the eugenics movement, it is not difficult to see why eugenicists used state fairs as a venue for popular education. A majority of Americans were still living in rural areas during the first several decades of the 20th century, and fairs were major cultural events. Farmers brought their products of selective breeding — fat pigs, speedy horses, and large pumpkins — to the fair to be judged. Why not judge “human stock” to select the most eugenically fit family?
  • This was exactly the concept behind Fitter Families for Future Firesides — known simply as Fitter Families Contests. The contests were founded by Mary T. Watts and Florence Brown Sherbon — two pioneers of the Baby Health Examination movement, which sprang from a “Better Baby” contest at the 1911 Iowa State Fair and spread to 40 states before World War I. The first Fitter Family Contest was held at the Kansas State Free Fair in 1920. With support from the American Eugenics Society’s Committee on Popular Education, the contests were held at numerous fairs throughout the United States during the 1920s.

Texas State Fair, large family winner of the Fitter Families Contest, 1925

  • At most contests, competitors submitted an “Abridged Record of Family Traits,” and a team of medical doctors performed psychological and physical exams on family members. Each family member was given an overall letter grade of eugenic health, and the family with the highest grade average was awarded a silver trophy. Trophies were typically awarded in three family categories: small (1 child), medium (2-4 children), and large (5 or more children).
  • All contestants with a B+ or better received bronze medals bearing the inscription, “Yea, I have a goodly heritage.” Childless couples were eligible for prizes in contests held in some states. As expected, the Fitter Families Contest mirrored the eugenics movement itself; winners were invariably White with western and northern European heritage.

Let’s conclude with some Edwin Black:

Hitler and his henchmen victimized an entire continent and exterminated millions in his quest for a co-called “Master Race.”
But the concept of a white, blond-haired, blue-eyed master Nordic race didn’t originate with Hitler. The idea was created in the United States, and cultivated in California, decades before Hitler came to power. California eugenicists played an important, although little known, role in the American eugenics movement’s campaign for ethnic cleansing.

On Death, Disability, and The Promise of The Cure

I need to reiterate my concern for Daniella’s death being co-opted by cure rhetoric.  Daniella, type-1 diabetic, died in her sleep in November 2011 from low blood sugar.  From what I can tell, Daniella was a white, blond-haired seventeen-year-old born and raised in Australia.  I never met Daniella in real-life, only posthumously in cyber-life.  To rehearse from my previous post, many blogs and JDRF advocates clung to her story and death with rhetoric that emphasizes the dire need for a “cure.”  I am also an advocate for the cure.  But I am also very critical of it when socioeconomic intersections and historical contexts are taken for granted in such rhetoric.  Let’s consider “the cure” as an object, like something we could grab onto and hold and make all that is supposedly ill, sick, diseased, damaged and deformed about our bodies simply go away so we could ‘go back to normal’.

I want to think about this: what is the cure doing in its co-optation of death by diabetes in order to advocate for its own cause of longevity, strength, and so-called health?  Perhaps this is where we can see more clearly the ways in which the cure functions to cover over the “able-bodied” order as is, thus reproducing the narrative of Daniella-as-victim in need of saving by mainstream medicine and science (see previous post on passive victimhood).  This is a narrative script: cure rhetoric reproduces the notion of disability as individual tragedy to be overcome–thus justifying medical authority and its pervasive surveillance of our pathologizable bodies.  This narrative strips Daniella’s crip existence of agency, value, and respect.  This narrative perpetuates the lottery approach to life and the idea that the chance or hap of disability can be controlled if only we had more money for the cure.  By covering over the “able-bodied” order, the cure as a veil might depend on the failure to recognize the failure of coincidence, or rather, the failure to recognize the chance of disability: maybe some things just can’t be controlled (like “coincidence,” like unexpected encounters)—disease happens, illness happens, pain happens, accidents happen, and death is inevitable.  Yet cure rhetoric disavows this reality.  The cure promises containment of disability.  In the circulation of the cure’s promise, disability is implicitly rendered as individual tragedy rather than seen complexly as systematic inaccessibility and a complicated, intricate bodily experience that has a place in this world.  The cure ultimately hopes to rid the world of pathologized disability where it justly has a place.  Disability belongs like all other life forms.

The exclusionary nature of the cure as a promissory object is evident in a recent article titled “More Ways to Cope with Type 1 Diabetes” published in The New York Times just last October.  We might say that Daniella, and my sister Britt, are included in the cure’s circulation as a promise of longevity, strength, and health.  Brittany actually sent me this article originally and with much excitement towards the prospects at hand.  But as I read through, a slight if caught me off-guard and sent my critique spiraling.  This article features a seemingly all-American heteronormative family with two children who so happen to have juvenile diabetes.  However, this “so happens” is disavowed through the logic of a lottery approach to life and the authority of medical science.  Journalist Jane E. Brody writes, “Type 1 diabetes has long been known to have a genetic basis that somehow interacts with environmental factors” (emphasis added).  What I want to call attention to here is the normalization of medical authority: third-person scientific fact is taken as natural, objective truth.  The speculative “somehow” of Brody’s reporting nonetheless implies that diabetes is potentially controllable: if the epidemiology or cause of juvenile diabetes is known at a genetic level, there is more hope for cure.  For the record: there is no indisputable evidence that diabetes is pathologically genetic or hereditaryBased upon her tentative claim of type 1’s hereditary possibilities, Brody remarks that “when the Gustins’ daughter Fiona was also found, at age 9, to have the disease, her parents knew it was not a freak coincidence” (emphasis added).  Brody explicitly denies the coincidence of disability: in doing so, she reinstates the myth of control and relieves the reader of her fear of disability.

A rhetorical representation of the cure as object

The possibility of cure as promissory object for the Gustins family is evident through their access to healthcare: their son had “been enrolled at birth in a University of Colorado study looking for markers for Type 1 diabetes in umbilical cord blood,” in addition to affording the costs of insurance, and “substantial co-pays for the insulin pumps both children use, pump supplies, test strips for blood sugar and, of course, a steady insulin supply.”  However, the elusive exclusionary nature of the cure as promissory object is nearly indiscernible yet paramount to those for whom healthcare is systematically out of reach: Brody writes, “In the last 40 years, improvements in blood sugar control have resulted in an average increase of more than 15 years in life expectancy for people with Type 1 diabetes…Further improvements in life expectancy are possible if patients can afford good care and have access to it” (emphasis added).  Brody fails to mention that the costs of an insulin pump without healthcare insurance ranges from $7,000-10,000, and that does not include the regular cost of insulin.  Regardless, the costs of insulin pumps with health insurance are still heavy.  Without access to the technology of insulin pumps, management of stable blood sugar relies upon the “human error” of insulin injections via syringe needles.  Thus, access to “improvements in life expectancy”—or rather, reproductive futurity and longevity—via the cure, or even access to the hope of cure, systematically underlies the ascendancy of whiteness and its affirmation of the modern “Self” through virtues of health and longevity.  Meanwhile, the cure (and healthcare more broadly) remains systematically out of reach for racialized, impoverished others who are always already deemed excessive.  It is not the possibility of cure in and of itself that is in question, but rather the ways in which its circulation as promissory affective object is unevenly distributed, and how this uneven biopolitical incorporation through the cure as happy object veils the reproduction of the social order by failing to recognize the failure of coincidence.

So we have a predicament.  While we need to work relentlessly to situate Daniella’s life experience in a crip time and place so that her life may be understood and valued as such, we also need to be critical and cautious of such death-happenings as they are co-opted by cure rhetoric and its racist, classist ways.  Moreover, how do we justly and ethically fight for healthcare treatment and universal access to it without necessarily reproducing the victim-narrative and lottery approach to life?

“Phantom Orgasms”: Cripping the “Evolutionary Mystery” of Female Sexuality

This post was also published on Feministing‘s Community Blog. =)

Cripping: like the analytic of “queering,” cripping centralizes disability in analyses that otherwise often remained “normed.”  Importantly, through its critical deconstruction and analytical awesomeness, cripping also tries to make new meaning, or rather, help us understand meanings in other ways that do justice to marginalized experiences.

How do we understand female orgasm?  It is easy for us to resort to science when such a paradox comes to mind–and, of course, it is easy for us to picture the normalized white, nondisabled young female when we try to imagine the possibilities of female sexual pleasure.

Wired magazine is an award-winning site about technology and culture that reaches masses and masses of online users, in the U.S. and globally.  According to Alexa.com, a web information company, Wired is ranked #650 in the world, and #326 in the U.S.  The time spent in a typical visit to the site is about three minutes, with 76 seconds spent on each pageview.

With so much user traffic, what is Wired writing about that’s so captivating?  *Drumroll please* …announcing, the world’s greatest mystery to science: female orgasm.

Female Orgasm Remains an Evolutionary Mystery” – pronounced in big, bold letters as one of today’s main headlines on Wired’s homepage, next to another featured techy article titled, “Amazon’s Future is So Much Bigger Than A Tablet.”  In about 500 words, Wired writer Brandon Keim reports on how the “female orgasm has resisted yet another attempt to explain its elusive evolutionary origins.”  Nearly 100 comments have been posted following the article in the 6 hours since the piece was published.

Look, feminist writing on this topic is old news.  Old news.  We know that “orgasm,” or female sexual pleasure, cannot be explained by science, evolution, and pathology alone.  For science to deduce female sexual pleasure to evolutionary reasoning is in and of itself a hetero-patriarchal move.  But Wired apparently doesn’t realize that (maybe because they’re hetero-patriarchal?).  Plus, the site needs viewers/readers, so it can make more money, I get it, so they pull out an old topic for debate that people love to joke about, yadda yadda, I get it.  There’s “new scientific findings,” etc and etc.

So, in light of all the serious, rigorous research and analyses out there by feminist scholars, activists, and writers (do the research yourself, even though unfortunately Brandon Keim can’t hone his skills to properly research issues he writes about, which is why I am here in attempts to hold him accountable), I am going to take a slightly different spin on my feminist analysis on this age-old mystery of female sexuality.  I am going to crip it.

Science and medicine has a pervasive history of pathologizing deviant bodies (like Black men and women, like women in general, like people with disabilities) and its technologies pursue today.  A classic example of this is doctors trying to use the authority of science/medicine to examine Sarah Baartman’s “oversized clitoris” and attributing her features to pathological Black female hypersexuality.  This pathologization not only masks the root causes of violence against women (and women of color in particular), but justifies it (“she was asking for it”).  Again, lots of radical feminist analysis on this issue of dominant science and female sexuality.  In a similar yet seemingly subtle manner, the article on Wired perpetuates longstanding ideological assumptions of hetero-patriarchy in understandings of sexuality and orgasm.  Brandon writes, “Also perplexing is that many women require clitoral stimulation to achieve orgasm, not penetrative action.  If female orgasms were meant to encourage sex, the opposite ought to be true.”  The opposite ought to be true?  For whom and for what purpose?  Let’s think about definitions.  Who defines what “sex” even means?  What actually constitutes a female orgasm?  How can these definitions be used against us, while be advantageous for others?  And they’re not just definitions.  There’s material effects.

Let me reiterate: lots of feminist work has been done surrounding this issue.  Please do the extra research about this at your expense.  I am going to crip this analysis for two reasons: 1) centralizing disabled women is important and political, and 2) co-thinking sex and disability helps us to re-think dominant notions about sex.

Mainstream hospitals, doctors’ offices, and relations with professional health care workers (such as personal assistants), are some of the most notorious institutionalized spaces of oppression against disabled people.  Moreover, underlying patriarchal ideology in the mainstream medical paradigm (see previous blog post and scroll down to “The Authority of Medicine”) make access to adequate healthcare for disabled women a particularly challenging and oftentimes degrading process.  For example, “Ann explains how, after she became paralysed, she could find no information about sex that was of any use to her; what was available was for paralysed men” (Gillespie-Sells et al 52).  Ann’s experience reflects the hetero-patriarchy embedded throughout medical practices and research: research like that presented by Brandon Keim.  Several studies point to similar conclusions.  For instance, Whipple et al report that the “overall quality [of their postinjury sexuality education by health professionals] was considered poor.  Generally included with information on bowel and bladder functioning, the materials that were distributed were of poor quality, outdated, and usually targeted for men.  The focus of female sexuality education was on giving, rather than receiving, sexual pleasure” (79).  Furthermore, scientist Margaret Nosek reports that many women have “relayed encounters with physicians who either said they did not know how their disabilities affected sexual functioning, said nothing at all, or provided inaccurate information” (25).

There is a general and urgent consensus by women with disabilities that information and resources must be made accessible and available.  However, “lack of information is not the only problem here,” feminist bioethics philosopher Abby Wilkerson argues, “providers’ assumptions may prevent them from understanding the situation” (20).  While adequate and accessible healthcare is paramount, underlying assumptions in the medical model must be simultaneously transformed.  Or else The Female Orgasm will forever remain an evolutionary mystery, and the subjugation of female sexuality will consequently live on.

In the mainstream medical paradigm, the “most common view [of sex] is goal directed” (Whipple et al 69), which, likened to hetero-normative sex, involves vagina/penis contact, intercourse, and the climactic genital orgasm.  Simiarly, Brandon in Wired writes that “the male orgasm is, in evolutionary and practical terms, a fairly straightforward thing — it makes men want to have sex more often, thus continuing their lineage, and is achieved with ease.”  We can see how Brandon assumes that sex is automatically hetero-normative, or, goal directed.  Premised upon goal directed sex, the medicalization of sex and disability requires corrective technologies to perform at best according to such standards.  “Within this framework, [disabled] men…seek penile implants to restore their erections, and women with hip contractures who cannot have conventional intercourse have hip surgery to have intercourse in socially prescribed positions” (Waxman 184).  Failure to rehabilitate “normal” sexual performance renders people with disabilities as asexual beings.

The elusive history of U.S. eugenics underlies much medical research and actions towards disability and reproduction, and permeates in genetic and evolutionary research today.  On selective abortion and disability, feminist biologist Ruth Hubbard notably begs the question, “Who should and should not inhabit the world?” (108).  In a capitalist for-profit economy that valorizes docile able-bodiedness and de-values “disability,” the who should and should not inhabit the world? question seems to prod at the crux of ableist assumptions and oppression.  On the ideology of ability and sex, disability theorist Tobin Siebers argues that “sex may be the privileged domain of ability.  Sex is the action by which most people believe that ability is reproduced, by which humanity supposedly asserts its future, and ability remains the category by which sexual reproduction as such is evaluated.  As a result, sex and human ability are both ideologically and inextricably linked” (139-40).  Thus it is an analytical imperative to unravel and de-link sex and ability so that sexual identity and disability may be reconceived—and so sexuality in general may be understood more complexly.

The rendering of sexual agency within self-representations and medical research by and for women with disabilities re-conceptualizes and re-imagines the possibilities of sex.  Whipple et al explain that “the alternative view [of sex] is pleasure directed, which can be conceptualized as a circle, with each expression on the circle considered an end in itself” (69).  As advocates of this alternative view, Whipple et al produced a study that was “designed to validate the reported experiences of women.”  They “documented in the laboratory that women could achieve orgasm from fantasy alone, without touching their bodies” (70).  Okay, I know this might seem strange at first glance.  Documented women cuming in the lab?  But, at a closer look, I think this lab documentation of hot crip pleasure has potential to disrupt dominant understandings of goal directed sex.  Whipple et al use the tools of dominant discourse to authorize the re-signifying stroke of what it means to orgasm.  Their research findings reflect an emphasis on diffuse sexuality, whereby “pleasure may be heightened by concomitant stimulation of an erogenous zone either above or at the level of injury” (72).  For instance, “Some of us who have no sensation in our vaginas or clitorises find that we can experience equivalent orgasms through sensations in other parts of our bodies” (Morris 89).  Disability rights activist Tessa explains that “[my partner and I] get far more enjoyment from sex than we ever thought possible.  We use mouth and nose and facial stroking a great deal, with back tickling as well…I am very ticklish in certain places and I can get an orgasm from being stroked there (for example, under my arms)” (Morris 89).  Tessa’s orgasm testimony disrupts and challenges dominant notions of goal directed sex, such as that deliberated in Wired.

Whipple et al are clearly implicated within that which they oppose; however they turn dominant concepts of the evolutionary nature of female sexuality against itself by debunking such scientific assertions: “Although it is claimed that women with complete SCI cannot achieve orgasm or that their orgasms are labeled as “phantom” orgasms, subjective reports of women do not support these contentions” (72).  Not only do they re-conceptualize orgasm, but they talk back to the mainstream medical paradigm’s fictitious notion of “phantom” orgasms that has been used against disabled women to delegitimize their sexuality.  Researchers Kaufman et al similarly denounce the use of “phantom orgasms.”  They candidly write that an “excellent example of the way information gets twisted is the term ‘phantom orgasm.’  This was a term that researchers came up with to describe something their subjects reported…The ‘expert’ explanation was that these people were merely experiencing a body memory they knew before their injury” (136).  They finish by turning the tables on the “expert” researchers as the ones who are ill-equipped to explain variations in sexual experiences: “Of course this kind of definition is more about narrow-mindedness of the researchers than what was actually happening” (136).  The mysteries of sex will not be found in genetic coding alone, or evolutionary science studies, that’s for certain.

Works cited

Gillespie-Sells, Kath, Mildrette Hill, and Bree Robbins. She Dances to Different Drums: Research into Disabled Women’s Sexuality. London: King’s Fund Publishing, 1998.

Hubbard, Ruth. “Abortion and Disability: Who Should and Should Not Inhabit the World?” The Disability Studies Reader, Third Ed. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York and London: Routledge, 1997. 107-119.

Kaufman, Miriam, Cory Silverberg, and Fran Odette. The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability: For All of Us Who Live with Disabilities, Chronic Pain and Illness. San Francisco, CA: Cleis Press Inc., 2003.

Morris, Jenny, ed. Able Lives: Women’s Experience of Paralysis. London: The Women’s Press, 1989.

Nosek, Margaret A. “Sexual Abuse of Women with Physical Disabilities,” 153-173. “Wellness Among Women with Physical Disabilities,” 17-33. Women with Physical Disabilities: Achieving and Maintaining Health and Well-Being. Eds. Danuta M. Krotoski, Margaret A. Nosek, and Margaret A. Turk, eds Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., 1996.

Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008.

Whipple, Beverly, Eleanor Richards, Mitchell Tepper, and Barry R. Komisaruk. “Sexual Response in Women with Complete Spinal Cord Injury.” Women with Physical Disabilities: Achieving and Maintaining Health and Well-Being. Eds. Danuta M. Krotoski, Margaret A. Nosek, and Margaret A. Turk, eds Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., 1996. 69-80.

Wilkerson, Abby L. Diagnosis: Difference: The Moral Authority of Medicine. New York: Cornell University Press, 1998.