On Saturday 9thJanuary 1915, the 32-year old Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard took a walk from their home in Richmond along the River Thames towards Kingston. Virginia recorded in her diary:
“On the towpath we met and had to pass a long line of imbeciles. The first was a very tall young man, just queer enough to look twice at, but no more; the second shuffled, and looked aside; and then one realised that every one in that long line was a miserable ineffective shuffling idiotic creature, with no forehead, or no chin, and an imbecile grin, or a wild suspicious stare. It was perfectly horrible. They should certainly be killed.”
This is quite shocking from someone who was herself no stranger to mental illness; but Virginia Woolf’s attitude to people with learning disabilities was typical of the intellectuals of her time. Today, we associate such sentiments with the Nazis, who came up with the phrase Life Unworthy of Life as justification for the murder of at least 250,000 disabled people (this figure from the German government, which in 2005 issued an apology to their relatives). Many consider this figure to be a gross underestimate, with the true total being nearer to one million disabled people, if one takes into account all the murdered children and disabled people who were not in “Greater Germany” or the occupied territories.
Drawing on the ‘science’ of eugenics, in 1933 Adolf Hitler and the Nazis instituted measures for the compulsory sterilisation of men and women suffering from hereditary diseases. This in turn led to seven propaganda films and many advertisements preparing the German population to give up their mentally disabled family members for ‘mercy killing’. Adverts showed a German worker weighed down by the burden of having to pay 50,000 Reichsmarks to maintain a mentally disabled person until the age of 60. Such was the effect of this propaganda that Hitler was even petitioned by some parents to kill their disabled children.
In October 1939 after war had been declared, Hitler issued a secret decree to expand the authority of physicians to examine patients who were considered incurable and after critical evaluation of their condition grant them mercy killing. Six so-called Euthanasia Centres were set up throughout Germany and also in many hospitals; here the killing of the disabled by gas and lethal injection was developed and these techniques were then refined and applied within the concentration camps, continuing until the end of the war in 1945.
But from where did Hitler and the Nazis draw these ideas about the people they called “useless eaters”? I’m afraid they came from Britain and in particular from ideas deriving from Charles Darwin.In 1859 Charles Darwin published his groundbreaking book Origin of Species which expounded his theory of evolution by natural selection. It wasn’t long before scientists and political theorists began to apply Darwin’s theory to human beings. With the spread of ideas about “the survival of the fittest”, social Darwinists started to question the wisdom of providing care to the ‘weak’ on the grounds this would enable people to live and reproduce who were not meant to survive. They feared that offering medical treatment and social services to disabled people would undermine the natural struggle for existence and lead to the degeneration of the human race.
Such views took hold not only in Germany but also particularly strongly in America and Britain. The existence of disabled people was increasingly seen in the UK and USA as a threat to social progress. Darwin himself wrote in his 1871 treatise, The Descent of Man, “We civilised men…. do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick… Thus the weak members of society propagate their kind.”
It was Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, who in 1883 first came up with the term ‘eugenics’. Galton became obsessed with Origin of Species, especially its chapter on the breeding of domestic animals. This inspired him to spend much of his life studying the variations in human ability. He wrote: “The question was then forced upon me. Could not the race of men be similarly improved? Could not the undesirables be got rid of and the desirables multiplied?”
Galton wrote in his 1869 book Hereditary Genius: “Let us do what we can to encourage the multiplication of the races best fitted to invent, and conform to, a high and generous civilisation, and not, out of mistaken instinct of giving support to the weak, prevent the incoming of strong and hearty individuals.” He argued that early marriage between healthy, mentally strong families should be encouraged by financial incentives, and reproduction by the ‘feeble-minded’ should be curtailed. In his mind, superior mental and physical capabilities were advantageous not only to an individual but essential for the wellbeing of society as a whole.
Galton’s views were not regarded as eccentric or offensive at the time and in fact he received many awards during his career. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1860 and was knighted shortly before he died in 1911. His writings played a key role in launching the eugenics movement in the UK and America. Supporters of eugenics called for government policies to improve the biological quality of the human race through selective parenthood. They linked physical and learning disabilities to a range of social problems including crime, vagrancy, alcoholism, prostitution and unemployment.
Eugenics quickly gained many backers on both sides of the Atlantic, including leading politicians and opinion formers – and not just figures on the far right of politics. Some of the British Left’s most celebrated names were among the champions of eugenics: Sidney and Beatrice Webb (the founders of the Fabian Society), Harold Laski, John Maynard Keynes, even the New Statesman and the Manchester Guardian. George Bernard Shaw wrote: “The only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialisation of the selective breeding of man.” Bertrand Russell proposed that the state should issue colour-coded ‘procreation tickets’ to prevent the gene pool of the elite being diluted by inferior human beings. Those who decided to have children with holders of a different-coloured ticket would be punished with a heavy fine. HG Wells praised eugenics as the first step towards the elimination of “detrimental types and characteristics” and the “fostering of desirable types” instead.
This brings us back to that distinguished socialist and convinced atheist, Leonard Woolf. Fifty years after that walk along the Thames with his wife Virginia, Leonard wrote in the fifth volume of his autobiography, The Journey Not the Arrival Matters:
“The passionate devotion of mothers to imbecile children…always seems to me a strange and even disturbing phenomenon. I can see and sympathise with the appeal of helplessness and vulnerability in a very young living creature – I have felt it myself in the case of an infant puppy, kitten, leopard, and even the much less attractive and more savage human baby. (…) But there is something horrible and repulsive in the slobbering imbecility of a human being. Is the exaggerated devotion of the mother to this child, which nearly always seems to be far greater than her devotion to her normal, attractive children, partly determined by an unconscious sense of guilt and desire to vindicate herself and her child?”
So it seems that even in the 1960s, after all the experience of the Nazis and the murder of countless numbers of disabled people, an intellectual such as Leonard Woolf still could not find a way to understand and empathise with people with learning difficulties or the fact that they are loved by their families. This to me illustrates the great danger of allowing such bleak and bony atheists and intellectuals anywhere near public policy and law-making on social and health issues; their failure to understand what is really going on and their characteristic attitudes such as lack of empathy and thinly-veiled disdain for the “devotion of mothers to imbecile children” makes them unfit to pronounce on other people’s lives.
Their disdainful attitude would of course be extended also to Rudolf Steiner; this is a pity, because if instead they were to take a little time and trouble to study anthroposophy they might actually find some insights into phenomena such as learning disabilities and how these can only be understood properly in terms of multiple lifetimes and karma. Through his spiritual research, Steiner was able to reveal some vital information about the invisible structure of health and illness. In the course of lectures titled Pastoral Medicine given in September 1924 to a mixed audience of priests and physicians, Steiner showed the interweaving of medical and spiritual issues and how these need to be understood if one is to care for suffering human beings.
In Lecture 5, describing what he calls psychopathological impairment, Steiner says that:
“In most cases a person brings it along as his or her karma … Already at birth, the person is in an abnormal condition because of some unusual stress in putting together the etheric body before entering the physical body. An etheric body was formed that does not want to penetrate the physical body completely, does not want to enter heart and stomach in the proper way but wants to flood them: in other words, an etheric body that carries the astral body and ego organisation too strongly into the various organs. Already at birth or very soon after, we see facial or bodily deformities that can give us deep concern. This is called congenital mental retardation – but there is no such thing! There is only karmic mental retardation, related to the child’s entire destiny. We will also speak about this more fully, so that you will see how an incarnation spent in such mental dullness can, under certain conditions, even have a beneficial place in a human being’s karma, although it may mean misery in that one incarnation. There is need, after all, to regard things not merely from the point of view of finite life, but sub specie aeternifrom the point of view of the immortal life of a human being. Then we would have a compassionate charity (caritas)and a wise one as well”.
There is much more that could be said to describe the wholly humane and wise approach of anthroposophy to these issues and the impact that Steiner’s observations subsequently had on people such as Karl König and Thomas Weihs and the birth of curative education, the Camphill movement etc. But the reason why I am writing about this issue now is because eugenics is starting to raise its ugly head again.
In China, a scientist, He Jiankui, has just claimed to have altered the DNA of twin girls before birth. He, an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, described how he used gene-editing technology known as Crispr-Cas9 to modify a gene called CCR5 in a number of embryos created through IVF for couples with HIV-positive fathers. The modification was intended to mirror a natural mutation found in a small percentage of people which makes them resistant to the virus. Two girls, named Nana and Lulu, were born with the genetic changes, he said.
So the eugenics genie is now once again out of the bottle. In academia, the word ‘eugenics’ may be controversial but the idea is not. To Professor Julian Savulescu, former editor and current board member of the Journal of Medical Ethics, the ability to apply ‘rational design’ to humanity, through gene editing, offers a chance to improve the human stock — one baby at a time. “When it comes to screening out personality flaws such as potential alcoholism, psychopathy and disposition to violence,” he said, “you could argue that people have a moral obligation to select ethically better children”. Francis Galton could not have put it better himself.
Meanwhile, the scientific pursuit of “ethically better children” is advancing rapidly. Since Louise Brown was conceived in a laboratory 40 years ago — the world’s first IVF baby — the treatment has become mainstream, and between 1991 and 2016, there were more than 1,100,000 treatment cycles in UK licensed clinics. Developments in IVF mean that, today, several embryos can be fertilised and screened for diseases, with the winner implanted in the uterus.
It is, however, the genetic modification of human embryos that causes most concern. But here, and at each point in the new eugenics, advocates will argue: where is the moral problem? There are no deaths, no sterilisations, no abortions: just a scientifically guided conception. This is all about the potential avoidance of disease and the benefit of humanity. So who could possibly complain?
Well, I can, for one. If you are using science to choose the most favourable genes to hand down to your children, that is the application of eugenics. This is just the latest example of humans acquiring God-like powers without the God-like wisdom to know how to use them properly. And the idea of consumer eugenics is already with us: sperm banks claim that they screen for everything from autism to red hair and in India, women desperate for a boy will pay for ante-natal screening to identify – and abort – girls. One can imagine a future situation in which parents who do not go in for genetic modification of their offspring will be labelled anti-social, rather like those parents who choose not to vaccinate their children today.
We have opened the door to an era of high-tech consumer eugenics, with affluent parents choosing the best qualities for their offspring and creating a new form of genetically modified human being. Once again the idea of perfecting humanity through eugenics is back, and once again it is coming with the assumption that the processes involved are limited to chemical, physical and biological ones and with no awareness or recognition of the spiritual dimension. This is not going to end well.