This project (2018-1-ES01-KA203-050606) has been funded with support from the European Commission.
This web site reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

This project has been funded with support from the European Commission.
This web site reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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Educational Material

Unit 12 - Biopolitics and Eugenics – Determining Factors in a Nation’s Governing


1.1 Topic Description
Logo from the Second International Eugenics Conference, in 1921 Exhibit photograph scanned from: Harry H. Laughlin, The Second International Exhibition of Eugenics held September 22 to October 22, 1921, in connection with the Second International Congress of Eugenics in the American Museum of Natural History, New York (Baltimore: William & Wilkins Co., 1923).

“One of the famous eugenic images is that a of a tree- used as a logo for the 2nd International Eugenic Congress and then for the 3rd Internationla Eugenic Congress. So, we believed that in 1945 we defeated Nazis and then we cut down the tree and eugenics was gone, by cutting down that eugenic tree. But what we didn’t realize at that time is that what you see with a tree is only the canopy and the trunk. But what you don’t see is the roots. The roots of that tree remained and they thrived for the past 50 years. And now it’s time to cut down the roots of global eugenics. We need to dig deeper into our individul histories, into our collective histories dig deeper into our histories to unmask those roots which are always there, they get nourishment, they get nourishment from people’s xenophobia, they get nourishment from people’s sexism, they get nourishment from people’s racism, they get nourishment from states and politicians who believe they can create a hierarchical society according to which some of us are better and entitled and priviliged and we deserve to get access to education, health, political powers and others are not worthy, because of the colour of their skin, or because they were born in a different part of the world, or because they speak with an accent. So, we need to undo that forcefully and convingly, and not as part of an academic conversation only, but truly as a public debate.” (Interview with Prof. Marius Turda)

Poster for the exhibition “We are not alone. The global heritage of eugenics”. This exhibition is part of a series of events organised worldwide between 27 September-October 2021, exactly one hundred years after the second International Congress in Eugenics, at the Natural History Museum in New York (22 -28September 1921), considered to be a defining and decisive moment in the global expansion of eugenics. The manifestations take place under the generic name „Dismantling Eugenics: Legacies, Reckonings, Futures”. The organisers are: Centre for Medical Humanities – Oxford Brookes University; Centrul de Istorie a Eugeniei și a Rasismului (CIER), affiliated to the „George Barițiu” History Institute of the Romanian Academy.

The history of medicine has revealed that certain concerns regarding health issues have always existed, conceptualised or not. Medical terms were associated to many of these issues from ancient times and some were understood and generalised much later. Such is the case when we speak of eugenics and biopolitics.

What we mean by these two modern concepts can be identified as human concern and activity from very old time. They vary in the ways of tackling them depending on the traditions, beliefs and social changes which appeared in various societies. Across centuries all these elements have led to changes in attitudes and motivation in using eugenics. For people of the 21 st century the vocabulary used and the attitude term which nominates certain groups of people are unacceptable. For the sake of authenticity and in order to understand how the thinking of specialists and people generally have evolved from the ‘basic point’,when the theory of eugenics first appeared, quotes using the original terms will be used.

This lecture examines the long term impact of biopolitics and eugenics in the historical and political world context of the 20th century and its consequences in Europe. As mentioned before we will exemplify with elements from the first theoreticians of eugenics, have an overview of the period between World War I and World War II, look at what happened during the war, after the war and then with some considerations about the present. In all sections of the lecture reference will be made to the situation in various countries around the globe, with more details about the situation in Romania. Taking into account that students in our project have no direct information about the real situation in a former communist country we decided more examples from the developments we know so well, would benefit all those who will resort to the leraning objects we have created. At the same time having these exmples may stimulate the dialogue between present participants in the project, and maybe stimulate future users from other ex-communist countries to create their learning objects on the topic, to reflect their own experience.

The lecture is split into four sections. The first section defines the concept of biopolitics and presents significant historical information in order to offer a context for the evolution of the main European ideologies of the 20th century. An analysis of how their impact, combined with the restructuring of Romania’s map and the need of revamping its governance after WWI, gave way to questionable ideologies. It continues with explaining the ways in which the field of Medicine was involved in biopolitics, internationally and in Romania.

The second section centres on eugenic sterilisation with examples from different cultures around the world and Romania. It then elaborates on the “why”, “how” and “on whom” this procedure was implemented. After briefly giving a historical context, it focuses on the targeted minorities and offers some excerpts of the printed press of that time, in which eugenic sterilisation was condoned. The first learning object, video from an interview with Prof. Marius Turda, historian, researcher and professor in bio-medicine at the University Oxford Brookes and the director of a humanistic centre. Globally/Internationally will be used in this section. He gives some historical elements regarding eugenics and eugenic sterilisation in the 20th century, all over the world.

The third section reviews women’s role in the Romanian society of various periods of time, in accordance with the political system. After examining the significance of maternity in politics, this section focuses on how women were manipulated and used as cattle “for the greater good” of the nation.

The fourth section is dedicated to the case study which reflects upon the Romanian decree passed in ’66 concerning abortion laws and its impact. After explaining how socialism had previously tried to use women as workforce, this section reviews the impact of legalising and banning abortion in Romania, raising many bioethical questions along the way and the dramatic effect on women and their families. The learning objects for this part are two readings: one from Lisa Feldman Barrett and one from Steven Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner, presenting points of view about the Romanian situation and similarities to the USA, and a video in which Professor Marius Turda, historian, researcher and professor in bio-medicine at the University Oxford Brookes and the director of a humanistic centre. Globally/Internationally, comments on similar situations in other countries at present, by answering the following question : Among other things, communist Romania is known for this so-called 770 decree, that made abortion a crime. Are there any European or international documents that allign with this decree and how did that affect their countries?

The lecture contains many references to past and present examples stressing the major aspects regarding the way in which eugenics was practised around the globe. Politics (meaning political beliefs, too) have always interfered in the use of eugenics, even when there was no term to coin the phenomenon. What is essential for the students is to know as much as possible about eugenic practices in time, some obvious , but many ‘camouflaged’. It is well known that medical staff has always played an important part in applying the eugenistic methods, that is why it is very important for the students to understand the moral aspects of eugenics in order to take an informed and ethical decision if the situation requires it.

The history of genetics and contemporary genomics teach us that science develops at a great speed and many things which sounded like science fiction are a reality now. What really matters is how to use all these scientific discoveries in a way that is universally considered ethical.

Biopolitics has many representations during the whole of the 20th century, eugenics, and racism were a source for fascism, Nazism, communism with their respective ideologies claiming that they could create the perfect societies with the ‘new man’ and the ‘new woman’. We now know how inhuman and unethical all these approaches in biopolitics, social engineering and breeding were. It is essential for medical students, medical staff generally to find out where “to draw the line between what is achievable, what is politically dictated and what is desired.” (Prof. Marius Turda)

As mentioned earlier this unit is inviting students not only to become acquainted with various historical developments of eugenics but also to reflect on what eugenics means for contemporary societies and people. As we know contemporary society has inherited, but also developed, delicate subjects , some very old and still very present in our lives. Specialists from several institutions in Europe and the USA have embaked on a research project which studies the above mentioned phenomenon. The learning objects connected to an exhibition, connected to this research, organised in Bucharest will shed some more light on eugenic manifestations and biopolitics in our days.

It is important to note that both in this lecture and in some of the recommended reading several terms will appear, such as ‘tarred’ and ‘tarnished’,’barbarians’, ‘highly civilised people” which are no longer deemed appropriate to use in medical practice or in any social context. They are used—sparingly—in this lecture to remain faithful to the historical content of the lecture. In doing so, not only will the development of ideas and practices regarding eugenics be highlighted, but the changes in the way that we discuss those ideas and practices.

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