Although proponents of eugenics rarely refer explicitly to a theory of what childhood is, evaluations of childhood are implicit within them. Contemporary children are associated with innocence and are perceived as valuable in so far as they do not understand the complexity of the adult world and adult concerns: especially work and sexuality. Such ignorance protects them from the realities of these things, but paradoxically also renders them more vulnerable to exploitation. This ideal of childhood innocence regulates understandings of what ways of being human are valued. What has come to be known as a ‘discourse of childhood innocence’ appears in public discussions of contemporary or liberal eugenics, with the effect of motivating arguments for population control and control of human variation. Childhood innocence is recognized according to very restrictive norms, particularized in terms of class, race, ability, and gender. Children are policed, praised, punished, and disregarded according to how they fit with notions of childhood innocence. Moreover, children are often targets of the policies of eugenics because they are seen as particularly malleable; they are seen as easy sites of intervention, whose potential can be controlled through education and health policy instruments. Children with disabilities experience a tenuous and contradictory status with regard to judgments of their innocence.
Children as a focus of social intervention
Children are a central target of eugenic theory and practice: as either what must be protected and cultivated or what must be limited and contained. Children are seen to be most directly “innocent” when they approximate the desired goal of positive eugenics; invested with hope for the future, they embody human perfection. The more children vary from that ideal (poor/ indigenous/ black/ disabled/ abused), the more their innocence is complicated. On one hand, they are seen as innocent victims, oblivious to their situation, and incapable of looking after themselves. But they may also be cast as a threat to innocence: as an undesirable symptom of social and physical degeneracy ("juvenile delinquent" or "mental defective"). Such children, then, become a target of negative eugenics, to be managed and controlled, and, depending on the particular regime, sterilized or allowed to die. Childhood innocence, in this respect, is more readily ascribed to socially desired children, who must, in turn, be protected from those children seen to fall short of innocence.
A number of situations that bring out most clearly how the notion of innocence works to regulate and limit variation among childhoods will be outlined below. These intersect with old and new eugenics discourses: the management of children through colonialism, the sterilization of children, growth attenuation, and practices of ‘letting die’ in current healthcare systems.
Colonialism: eugenics, genocide, and assimilation
European colonization of non-European territories from the sixteenth century onward had radical consequences for indigenous peoples, who were dispossessed of their lands, resources, and labor in order to enrich colonizers. It is in settler societies such as North America and Australia, however, that eugenic theories and practices became a feature of colonization, as settlers lived alongside aboriginal people and concerns about the purity of the race became prevalent. Wars, massacres, and poisoning acted in concert with more “humane” population controls, such as the relocation of people from their homelands to missions or reservations, the management of who could marry whom, and the removal and reeducation of children. These practices were informed by Francis Galton’s eugenic principles, according to which populations can and should be controlled for size and quality, in order to breed ‘better,’ more phenotypically ‘normal’ people.
Australia provides a vivid example of such practices. The “stolen generations” refers to aboriginal people of mixed descent who were removed from their families to state care, so that they could be culturally assimilated to the white population, and eventually “pass” for non-indigenous. The stated reasons for removal sometimes included a concern for these children’s innocence, or at least a desire to limit their corruption where their families and communities were seen to present a moral threat. In this case, childhood innocence was used to regulate a population. However, relative to the non-indigenous population – and especially white children – Aboriginal children were themselves seen as a threat to the genetic purity and innocence of the Australian community. “Protectors” of Aborigines, charged with managing aboriginal children, sometimes appealed to eugenics in order to garner intellectual legitimacy for their tasks; discussion of their aims more generally assumed eugenic beliefs regarding breeding rates and character of “full-blood” versus “half-caste” and “quadroon” aboriginal people. While these policies officially ceased in 1969, Aboriginal children are still overrepresented in the foster care and juvenile prison systems in Australia; this demonstrates the extent to which their place in the community is still heavily influenced by assumptions regarding whether (and until what point) their innocence can be salvaged. As children whose innocence is complicated, they have become a focus of anxiety and the policing of their innocence.
Compulsory sterilization of children and adolescents was performed on eugenic grounds in parts of North America, including Alberta and British Columbia in Canada, and numerous states in the U.S. Children in poverty, indigenous children, and other socially vulnerable children were disproportionately targeted by policies of enforced sexual sterilization (see Grekul et al., 2004), putatively because of “feeble-mindedness,” without prior consent, and even by means of deception. These radical measures were enacted against children at precisely a time when “innocent childhood” had come to mean social aspiration. While discussions of population health utilized idealized images of happy, healthy, white, middle-class children – and over the course of the twentieth century public resources were invested in schools, parks, and education to an unprecedented degree – sections of the population deemed “unfit” were vilified and their children were targeted as potential vectors of ill health, criminality, and imbecility. These children were ambiguously positioned regarding notions of innocence: sometimes viewed as in need of being ‘rescued’ from their parents, as “feeble-minded” they were also seen as especially ignorant of the adult concerns that corrupt children. Conversely, they were also subjected to work, deprivation, and abuse, suggesting they were not considered to be as innocent as other children. In so far as innocence also functions as an ideal, the nation was certainly not imagining its future through images of children in state care.
Pre-natal screening, growth attenuation, and ‘letting die’
Today, parents are tasked with responsibility for population control decisions. Through the individual choices of parents availed of pre-natal testing, the prospect that only genetically regular children might be born alters understandings of what it means to be human. Variation is further stigmatized and children with disabilities now bear the brunt of prejudices that impact on how their lives may be lived and valued.
While screening and genetic counseling produces a situation in which children with congenital illness and disability (including deaf or Down Syndrome children) need never exist, new radical surgeries enable parents to arrest their disabled children’s growth and puberty. This is for the putative purpose of facilitating care for intellectually disabled people as they mature. However, a discourse of childhood innocence often accompanies these decisions, showing the extent to which our society views the disabled adult as monstrous. Fantasies of eternal childhood (one father calls his growth-attenuated daughter his “pillow angel” (see http://www.pillowangel.org/) placate anxieties about sexual awakening. Through surgical intervention, a perceived parity is achieved between “innocent” mind and a surgically administered “innocent” body.
Childhood with disability is represented as “a life not worth living” where doctors decide to withdraw medical care and allow children to die, often against parents’ wishes. Because these children do not embody innocence in its significance of hope for the future, they are regarded as having little value. A recent past in which children were sexually sterilized casts its shadow over such practices. The ideal of childhood innocence – as both the object of eugenics and the material with which it works – must be regarded with suspicion if human variation is to be valued.
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