Traditionally, eugenicists believed that some people were socially unfit because of defective biology. Due to the supposedly hereditary nature of the defect, certain individuals and/or groups were actively prohibited from reproducing. The primary factor motivating such eugenic initiatives was fear: fear of degeneracy. For example, white British Anglo-Saxon colonizers feared degeneracy insofar as that degeneracy was a social regression into the ways of uncivilized ‘others’. These so-called ‘others’ were non-Western tribes, ‘primitives’, and ‘savages’, something manifest in the utopian visions of early twentieth-century authors, such as H.G. Wells (Carey 1999). In contemporary society, appeal to the unfit has extended further into the social realm, finding new substrates upon which mechanisms of power can operate in a eugenic fashion. This entry will focus on the social function of “the unfit” in Canadian eugenics.
Early Roots: 1890s-1920s
Eugenic regulation and control of the Canadian population was maintained through selective deportation of “unfit” immigrants between 1890s and 1920s. Deportations were made on an ad hoc basis mostly as a result of the perceived incapacity of immigrants to support themselves. In cases in which there was such incapacity, however, these were due to some kind of physical incapacity caused by illness, injury, or some kind of medical condition (Roberts 1997, 53).
Post WWI Anxiety
In the social and economic aftermath of the First World War, unfitness as a social concern became implicated with concerns about malnutrition in Canada. In response to the rapid increase in food prices that began in the middle of the First World War, the military became worried in the early twenties that “so many men were found to be unfit for military service” (see Davis 1921 in Ostry 2006, 23). Thus wartime concerns about military fitness among young males in Canada led to investigations of malnutrition among Canadian schoolchildren. Studies conducted by the Toronto Department of Public Health and the Nutritional Clinic at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children in the early 1920s demonstrated that malnutrition was a problem for many of the city’s poor children. According to the investigators at the time, the cause of malnutrition in approximately half the cases studies involved mismanagement and lack of discipline in the home, drawing attention to unfit living conditions, parenting skills, and cultural practices.
The domestic and gendered segregation popular at the time made the maternal body a subject of the policies of a number of organizations, such as the National Council of Women, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Social Service Council of Canada. The wartime “social gospel” movement reduced the high rates of infant mortality related to malnutrition among women in children, while covertly disseminating propaganda addressing cultural practices consecrated for raising fit and accepted bodies (Ostry, 25). The ubiquitous angst over fitness and unfitness that permeated the domestic realm is also well known for having enervated the social realm through and through. McLaren’s Our Own Master Race documents how much of the racist energy that pulsated through Europe in the 1920s and 1930s was evident in Canada’s social landscape. In the decades leading up to World War Two Canada exercised a strong eugenic policy of “race betterment” by curtailing immigration, increasing birth control for some, and stepping up “mental testing”. These eugenic policies were driven by fear of racial degradation. In Western Canada, Alberta’s Indian, Métis, Ukrainian, Polish and Russian populations were more vulnerable to sterilization than were those of other ethnicities (Harris-Zsovan 2011).
Making an Impression: 1930s-1940s
The pseudo-scientific theory of maternal impressionism claims that certain sensory and emotional perceptions experienced by a pregnant mother have the capacity to mark her fetus in undesirable ways, leading to a baby born with any range of deformities, rendering it unfit. Impressions could be transferred to the unborn child from perceptions diverse as “fright, an accident, or forgetting the need for vigilance” (Wendy and Gordon, 112). What to some might seem as an outdated theory of the Middle Ages actually persisted in the Canadian culture landscape well into the 20th century. Ilka D. Dickman, a nurse in Newfoundland during the late 1930s to early 1940s, recounted the case of a baby who was born deformed and eventually died “of the unknown sin they [the family] must have committed, to which this deformed child is ascribed” (Wendy and Gordon, 112). The responsibility to avoid producing an unfit child was not only displaced onto the family unit but was rather openly embraced by the family unit and people who sought to maintain and exert control over the desired end of reproduction. In 1929 Chatelaine exploited these fears and insecurities for market purposes by featuring an advertisement showing a ‘healthy’ child whose mother testifies: “I took Virol myself before baby was born,” suggesting that if mothers wanted their children to be ‘healthy and beautiful’ Virol was the way to preempt any undesirable impressions making their way from mother to baby (113).
Post WWII and Contemporary considerations
Like all great discoveries in history, James Watson and Francis Crick’s 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA has posed more questions than it has solved. As whole genome sequencing advances to the point of being able to present a reliable picture of the prenatal individual at the genetic level, the question regarding what genetic conditions justify an informed and capable parent acting on concerns about the status of their potential offspring.
The advances currently being made in the area of microarray analysis, the precursor to whole genome sequencing, is providing would-be parents with so much extra pressure when it comes to making decisions about which pregnancies to keep and which to abort. Associated health ‘risks’, especially in relation to Down Syndrome and genetic testing, have complicated the medico-ethic debate surrounding the ethic responsibility of bringing a being into the world who might suffer ‘x’. The more accurate these prenatal investigative tools become the greater the chance that evidence could be used to construe a lively variation that is part of human nature as a severely disabling condition. Consequently, many chromosomal microarray consent forms still list Trisomy 21 (Down Syndrome) as the first, ahead of Trisomy 13 (Patau Syndrome), and Trisomy 18 (Edwards Syndrome), two clinical situations that are categorically of higher lethality.
Finally, a contemporary eugenic agenda also haunts LGBTQ persons in this regard. As Cleminson and Gordo-López (2000) have in effect pointed out, queerness is a sort of eugenic trait, like disability itself, as can be seen in contemporary theatre and cinema. For example, Jonathan Tollin’s 1993 play The Twilight of the Gods, in which a pregnant woman and her husband debate whether to abort a fetus identified genetically as “homosexual”, and Andrew Niccol’s 1997 film Gattaca, in which same-sex love must be literally burned out so heterosexuality can survive, both promote eugenic visions of a queer-free future through reproductive choice.
Despite advances, both scientific and social, the category of the unfit continues to operate at the fringes of our collective psyche. Crossing traditional political boundaries, there remains an underlying current in contemporary thought regarding ‘who’ is unfit for inclusion in the each respective future.
-Cameron A.J. Ellis
Carey, John, (Ed.).(1999). The Faber Book of Utopias. London: Faber and Faber.
Cleminson, Richard & Ángel Juan Gordo-López. (2000). “Eugenics and Homosexuality.” Timothy F. Murphy (Ed.). Reader’s Guide to Lesbian and Gay Studies, New York: Routledge, pp. 207-8.
Harris-Zsovan, Jane. (2010). Eugenics and the Firewall: Canada’s Nasty Little Secret. Winnipeg: J. Gordon Shillingford.
McLaren, Angus. (1990). Our Own Master Race: Eugenics in Canada, 1885-1945. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.
Ostry, Aleck Samuel. (2006). Nutrition Policy in Canada, 1870-1939. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Roberts, Barbara. (1997). Whence The Came: Deportation from Canada 1900-1935. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.
Smith, Kieron. (2011). The Politics of Down Syndrome, Washington: Zero Books.
Wendy, Mitchinson & Schochet Gordon. (2002). Giving Birth in Canada, 1900-1950. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.