Social and Scientific Assumptions
At the heart of the eugenics movement lay certain social and scientific assumptions. One such assumption, based on the work of Mendel, was that certain characteristics and traits were thought to be hereditary. Another was that these characteristics and traits were believed to be socially undesirable. Hence it was thought to be in society's interests to reduce the spread of these undesirable traits by limiting the power of reproduction by those individuals and groups who possessed them. Among the characteristics which many proponents of eugenics viewed as almost exclusively hereditary were mental retardation, mental illness, pauperism, criminality, and various other social defects including prostitution, sexual perversion and other types of immoral behaviour. Supporters of eugenics also believed that these groups had a higher reproductive rate than other people. One of the most dominant and recurrent themes of eugenics philosophy in the late 19th and early 20th century was the emphasis on this link between mental retardation and criminality, and the consequent "menace" which mental deficiency posed to society. Many prominent Canadians of that era were advocates of eugenics philosophy and eugenic sterilization, including Dr. E.W. McBride, Professor Carrie Derick and Dr. Helen MacMurchy. Support for eugenic sterilization was also expressed in the 1920s by many prominent Alberta women, including Emily MURPHY, Louise MCKINNEY and Nellie MCCLUNG.
Sexual Sterilization Laws
Eugenics philosophy was highly influential in the enactment of sexual sterilization laws in North America in the early part of the 20th century. This type of legislation was passed in many states in the United States, and in 2 Canadian provinces: Alberta (in 1928) and British Columbia (in 1933). The legislation in Alberta established a Eugenics Board with the power to authorize the sexual sterilization of certain individuals, including those who were "psychotic" or "mentally defective," in order to eliminate "the risk of multiplication of the evil by transmission of the disability to progeny" or the risk of "mental injury either to the individual or to his or her progeny." The Alberta legislation was repealed in 1972. During the 44 years in which the legislation was in effect, the Eugenics Board approved 4725 cases for sterilization, of which 2822 were actually carried out. The legislation in British Columbia, which was used much less often than in Alberta, was repealed in 1973. In 1996 an Alberta court awarded approximately $750 000 in damages to a woman who was wrongfully sterilized under the Alberta legislation.
Author GERALD ROBERTSON
Links to Other Sites
A profile of Nellie McClung, Canadian writer, suffragette, and activist. From the Calgary Herald feature "Best of Alberta."
Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada
Watch a film in which various stakeholders discuss the objectives of the "Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada." From vimeo.com.
Growing a Race: Nellie L. McClung and the Fiction of Eugenic Feminism
See online excerpts from Cecily Devereux's book that provides a historical context for Nellie McClung's views on the sensitive issue of eugenics. From Google Books.
Growing a Race: Nellie L. McClung and the Fiction of Eugenic Feminism (review)
See an excerpt of a review of Cecily Devereux's book "Growing a Race: Nellie L. McClung and the Fiction of Eugenic Feminism." From the Project MUSE website.
Unnatural selection: Is evolving reproductive technology ushering in a new age of eugenics?
An article that examines the ethical implications of evolving reproductive technologies. From the Globe & Mail.