Eugenics and Disability

In Beatriz Mirandaa-Galarza Patrick Devlieger (ed.), Rethinking Disability: World Perspectives in Culture and Society. Antwerp, Belgium: pp. 93-112 (2016)
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In the intersection between eugenics past and present, disability has never been far beneath the surface. Perceived and ascribed disabilities of body and mind were one of the core sets of eugenics traits that provided the basis for institutionalized and sterilization on eugenic grounds for the first 75 years of the 20th-century. Since that time, the eugenic preoccupation with the character of future generations has seeped into what have become everyday practices in the realm of reproductive choice. As Marsha Saxton (2000) and Adrienne Asch (2000, 2003) have forcefully argued, the use of prenatal screening technologies to facilitate the selective abortion of fetuses with features that signify disabling traits—the paradigm here being trisomy 21 in a fetus indicating Down Syndrome in the child—express a negative view of such disabilities sufficient to warrant terminating an otherwise wanted pregnancy. The eliminative structure of what Rosemary Garland Thompson (2012) has called eugenic logic persists in contemporary practices governing reproductive choice, social inclusion, and democratic participation and their relationship to disability. The tie between eugenics and contemporary disability studies suggests that eugenics and reflection on its history can also play a more positive role in disability politics. After focusing on eugenics in the first half of the paper, we will shift in the second half of the paper to eugenic resonances in contemporary thought and practice, concluding with some thoughts about ongoing practices of silencing and the very idea of eradicating disability.

Author's Profile

Robert A. Wilson
University of Western Australia


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