The Sterilization of the Unfit

This was a lecture given by Kropotkin to the Eugenics Congress in London in August 1911. It first appeared in written form in Mother Earth no. 10 December 1912, pg. 354-357

Permit me to make a few remarks: one concerning the papers read by Professor Loria and Professor Kellogg, and another of a more general character concerning the purposes and the limitations of Eugenics.

First of all I must express my gratitude to Professor Loria and to Professor Kellogg for having widened the discussion about the great question which we all have at heart—the prevention of the deterioration and the improvement of the human race by maintaining in purity the common stock of inheritance of mankind.

Granting the possibility of artificial selection in the human race, Professor Loria asks: “Upon which criterion are we going to make the selection?” Here we touch upon the most substantial point of Eugenics and of this Congress. I came this morning with the intention of expressing my deep regret to see the narrow point of view from which Eugenics has been treated up till now, excluding from our discussions all this vast domain where Eugenics comes in contact with social hygiene. This exclusion has already produced an unfavorable impression upon a number of thinking men in this country, and I fear that this impression may be reflected upon science altogether. Happily enough the two papers I just mentioned came to widen the field of our discussions.

Before science is enabled to give us any advice as to the measures to be taken for the improvement of the human race, it has to cover first with its researches a very wide field. Instead of that we have been asked to discuss not the foundations of a science which has still to be worked out, but a number of practical measures, some of which are of a legislative character. Conclusions were already drawn from a science before its very elements had been established.

Thus we have been asked to sanction, after a very rapid examination, marriage certificates, Malthusianism, the notification of certain contagious diseases, and especially the sterilization of the individuals who may be considered as undesirables.

I do not lose sight of the words of our president, who indicated the necessity-of concentrating our attention upon the heredity aspects of this portion of social hygiene; but I maintain that by systematically avoiding considerations about the influence of surroundings upon the soundness of what is transmitted by heredity, the Congress conveys an entirely false idea of both Genetics and Eugenics. To use the word a la mode, it risks the “sterilization” of its own discussions. In fact, such a separation between surroundings and inheritance is impossible, as we just saw from Professor Kellogg’s paper, which has shown us how futile it is to proceed with Eugenic measures when such immensely powerful agencies, like war and poverty, are at work to counteract them.

Another point of importance is this. Science, that is, the sum total of scientific opinion, does not consider that all we have to do is to pay a compliment to that part of human nature which induces man to take the part of the weak ones, and then to act in the opposite direction. Charles Darwin knew that the birds which used to bring fish from a great distance to feed one of their blind fellows were also a part of Nature, and, as he told us in “Descent of Man,” such facts of mutual support were the chief element for the preservation of the race; because, such facts of benevolence nurture the sociable instinct, and without that instinct not one single race could survive in the struggle for life against the hostile forces of Nature.

My time is short, so I take only one question out of those which we have discussed: Have we had any serious discussion of the Report of the American Breeders’ Association, which advocated sterilization? Have we had any serious analysis of the vague statements of that Report about the physiological and mental effects of the sterilization of the feeble-minded and prisoners? Were any objections raised when this sterilization was represented as a powerful deterring means against certain sexual crimes?

In my opinion, Professor McDonnell was quite right when he made the remark that it was untimely to talk of such measures at the time when the criminologists themselves are coming to the conclusion that the criminal is “a manufactured product,” a product of society itself. He stood on the firm ground of modern science. I have given in my book on Prisons some striking facts, taken from my own close observation of prison life from the inside, and I might produce still more striking facts to show how sexual aberrations, described by Krafft Ebing, are often the results of prison nurture, and how the germs of that sort of criminality, if they were present in the prisoner, were always aggravated by imprisonment.

But to create or aggravate this sort of perversion in our prisons, and then to punish it by the measures advocated at this Congress, is surely one of the greatest crimes. It kills all faith in justice, it destroys all sense of mutual obligation between society and the individual. It attacks the race solidarity—the best arm of the human race in its struggle for life.

Before granting to society the right of sterilization of persons affected by disease, the feeble-minded, the unsuccessful in life, the .epileptics (by the way, the Russian writer you so much admire at this moment, Dostoyevsky, was an epileptic), is it not our holy duty carefully to study the social roots and causes of these diseases?

When children sleep to the age of twelve and fifteen in the same room as their parents, they will show the effects of early sexual awakenings with all its consequences. You cannot combat such widely spread effects by sterilization. Just now 100,000 children have been in need of food in consequence of a social conflict. Is it not the duty of Eugenics to study the effects of a prolonged privation of food upon the generation that was submitted to such a calamity?

Destroy the slums, build healthy dwellings, abolish that promiscuity between children and full-grown people, and be not afraid, as you often are now, of “making Socialism”; remember that to pave the streets, to bring a supply of water to a city, is already what they call to “make Socialism”; and you will have improved the germ plasm of the next generation much more than you might have done by any amount of sterilization.

And then, once these questions have been raised, don’t you think that the question as to who are the unfit must necessarily come to the front? Who, indeed? The workers or the idlers? The women of the people, who suckle their children themselves, or the ladies who are unfit for maternity because they cannot perform all the duties of a mother? Those who produce degenerates in the slums, or those who produce degenerates in palaces?

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