Sarah Parker Remond Centre


Transcript: What Does Eugenics Mean To Us? Episode 6

This conversation was recorded on 22nd April 2021. Host: Subhadra Das, Critical Eugenics Researcher, UCL Sarah Parker Remond Centre

Episode 6: People, people, people

Guests: Kate Law, Nottingham Research Fellow in the School of History at the University of Nottingham  //  Kalpana Wilson, Lecturer in the Geography Department at Birkbeck, University of London  //  Paige Patchin, Lecturer in Race, Ethnicity & Postcolonial Studies, UCL Sarah Parker Remond Centre Admissions Office

Subhadra Das: Welcome to What Does Eugenics Mean To Us?, a podcast from the UCL Sarah Parker Remond Centre. I'm your host, Subhadra Das, and for the last ten years I've been researching the history and legacy of eugenics at UCL, in the sciences and beyond. In this podcast I've brought together some brilliant researchers for some fascinating and insightful conversations across the disciplinary divides. Together, we are going to discuss, examine, critique and explode eugenic thinking. How are racism, ableism, sexism and class warfare embedded in our ways of thinking about and perceiving other people? What can we do to challenge and dismantle those ideas and structures? As a university and a community of researchers: what does eugenics mean to us?

One of the ways in which eugenics became incorporated into mainstream society all around the world was through the birth control movement. Early 20th Century birth control pioneers, like Marie Stopes and Margaret Sanger, were also ardent eugenicists and their motives were bound up with imperial concerns about, as eugenicists saw it, the deterioration of the white race. Their arguments were taken up in the cause of another imperialist concern, which was the growing population of non-white peoples in the colonies. In this episode, I wanted to think about how we confront historical and contemporary eugenicist practices in the continuing struggle for reproductive justice.
Joining me to do that are Kate Law, a feminist historian who specialises in 20th century Southern African history. Kate is currently a Nottingham Research Fellow at the School of History at the University of Nottingham and a Research Fellow in the International Studies Group at the University of the Free State. Her first book, Gendering the Settler State: White Women, Race, Liberalism and Empire in Rhodesia was published by Routledge in 2016, and her current research project is Fighting Fertility: The British Anti-Apartheid Movement and the Politics of Race and Contraception in South Africa.
Kalpana Wilson is a lecturer in geography at Birkbeck University and her research explores questions of race, gender, labour, neo-liberalism, and reproductive rights and justice, with a particular focus on South Asia and its diasporas. She is the author of She is the author of Race, Racism and Development: Interrogating History, Discourse and Practice, and has published widely on race, gender, international development, women’s agency, and rural labour movements.
Lastly, we are joined by Paige Patchin, Lecturer in Race, Ethnicity and Postcolonial Studies, my colleague at, and one of the founding lecturers, at the Sarah Parker Remond Centre at UCL. Paige is a feminist geographer whose work looks at structures of power in biological, health and earth sciences. Her research interests include infectious disease, race and empire, genetics and epigenetics, reproductive health and the Anthropocene. Her current book project looks to the Zika public health emergency between Puerto Rico and the United States.
We’ve seen that notable public figures, such as Donna Haraway, for example, in academia, but we don’t even need to go into academia, David Attenborough has also made very public statements that the main thing for humanity to deal with, if it is to continue living on this planet, is to deal with the issue of overpopulation.
So, we’re not really here to debate about who gets to call themselves a feminist, or who should or should not be vilified or cancelled in public as a racist about this discourse, because actually there’s something really much more important that we need to be talking about, which is the connection between the ideas to do with eugenics and birth control and then, by extension, eugenics and population control. So, the first question I’ve got is, this idea of overpopulation, what does the question of overpopulation distract us from?
Kate Law: The first thing we need to do is not accept the term overpopulation on face value. We need to understand which actors, both historically and contemporaneously, are making overpopulation a thing that we should be concerned about. We can trace the lineage of ideas of overpopulation right back to the 18th century, with people like Malthus, but in my work on apartheid South Africa, these ideas resurface in the 1970s in particular. And earlier, in the context of the Cold War, you have popular writers like Paul Ehrlich, talking about a population bomb, a population explosion; so quite violent imagery. And I guess, from my perspective, I think it’s really important to understand that in the context of a rapidly decolonising planet, Cold War anxieties about, broadly speaking, the West versus the rest and, indeed, which groups of people around the world are considered to be producing too many, reproducing at too high a rate.
Subhadra: Kalpana, did you want to come in on that?
Kalpana Wilson: I completely agree with what Kate just said. I think one of the things we can see now in the contemporary context, Kate mentioned Malthus and in a way one of his really lasting impacts has been to put forward this idea that poverty is really the fault of the poor for having too many children, rather than anything to do with capitalism. And that’s something which, in a way, you can see that thread going through from then on.
And more recently, in addition we’re now seeing this idea that climate change again is the fault of people in the global south supposedly having too many children, and that is again shifting the responsibility away from the operation of global capitalism, imperialism and so on. So, I think, yes, that question of shifting of responsibility is very, very important.
And just to echo what Kate said as well about population discourse uses a lot of statistics, it uses a lot of numbers, a lot of which are really a bit meaningless in reality, but we have to remember that those numbers are also very much embodied, in the sense that they are talking about particular people.
And I was just reminded when Kate mentioned Paul Ehrlich and his book, The Population Bomb, it actually starts off with this incredibly kind of visceral description of him and his wife and his one child, this little American family, being in this taxi which is stuck in a very, very crowded part of Delhi, and he describes all of these people who are living their lives on the street and he has this famous phrase, ‘people, people, people’. But it’s very clear that they are specific kinds of people; they are poor, racialised people of the global south, and those are the people who are really being talked about in the context of all of the population policies, which you then see in that period and continuing now in different forms.
Subhadra: It’s that very visceral depiction of a racialised other as being somehow the problem, as being somehow the threat. I think for me, the thing that comes across with that is, when I started to look into the history of eugenics at UCL, and particularly the work of Professor Karl Pearson, who starts out as a mathematics professor and then he sets up statistics, as well as statistical science, he wanted to call it applied science, and the root of the word ‘statistics’ is the science of the state. So, these things are so bound up in each other than even, in terms of the vocabulary, the words themselves have a power inherent in them. Paige, do you want to add in anything to this point before we move on?
Paige Patchin: I think just that the term ‘overpopulation,’ you have to really slow down to think what does ‘over’ mean and what does ‘population’ mean. I think we assume them to be kind of self-evident because we’re so used to hearing the word ‘population’. Malthus has already been mentioned, but in terms of the use of that word in the 19th century in Britain, and this is from some of Michelle Murphy’s work, it’s used to describe the working-class as kind of this undifferentiated mass. And then, in the 20th century, you start to see it in the US as used to describe the number of people in a prison. So, she says, talking about groups of people like this, it’s always a managerial question, it’s about what are we going to do about them? So, it’s ‘them’, not ‘us’ and it’s them as a problem of some kind, and I think that’s very important, this 'us versus them' and the delineation of a problem in terms of bodies like that.
And then ‘over’, like why is there a threshold being discussed in terms of a number of human bodies instead of, say, relationships between people, and between people and the rest of nature, in the climate change debate? And the reason, I think, is exactly what both Kate and Kalpana have said, that it’s a lot easier, politically, to talk about family planning, or fertility, than reorganising our economic system, or actually taking on big oil and gas.
Subhadra: This is all very much a neo-liberal co-option of ideas that actually, at heart, there are good things inherent in this. I don’t think anyone around the table is suggesting that women, for example, shouldn’t have control over their own reproduction, but it’s interesting how these ideas have been reframed in the idea that it’s individuals and individual issues and problems, so it’s something for one person to fix. And of course, we know, just from a lot of trying to get people to think more actively about how they can do things, like live more sustainably or do better things for the environment, that’s it’s completely overwhelming to go, 'I’m only one person, what am I supposed to do?'
There are real world implications for this, just beyond the idea of populations growing 'out of control' - I hope you can all hear the quote marks in my voice - because it’s about migration as well. So, the ways in which climate change and the ways in which some people are scared about how migration is going to affect population movement because of climate change, without really any kind of consideration about who’s caused the change and that these are all somehow natural forces.
In addition to that, I think, it also is linked to this idea of welfare, which of course has lots of history to do with eugenics and eugenic thinking. Many of the propounders of the welfare state, in the UK, and also in the United States, were eugenicists in terms of their views of how to run a society. Can we talk a little bit about how that looks in terms of the ways in which the state has framed working class women and their fertility, and also the ways in which the welfare state remains a colonial exercise?
Kalpana: One of the things which we have to remember when we think about that period of the establishment of the welfare state is that it was, of course, only made possible by this huge drain of resources through colonialism, and of course slavery prior to that. So that, in a way, British colonialism made the welfare state in Britain possible.
But I think the relationship with welfare is complex and I think, currently, population control is being projected as a way of supporting neo-liberal policies, which actually mean the cutting of social spending. And you get very explicit statements around this. So, a few years ago, we had the Minister for Development – this is when DFID still existed – talking about, in Tanzania, how a reduction in the birth rate would mean you needed, I think it was, 39,000 less teachers in the future. So, this whole notion, they call it, averting births, this is something which Michelle Murphy talks about, whom Paige mentioned, so these averted births are seen as directly linked to cutting social spending, essentially.
Subhadra: Yes, so it’s about people not as humans but as resources and as part of a larger machine. I also wanted to explore, in this context, the ways in which identities are gendered and racialised, particularly the idea of the 'welfare queen'. Can someone gives us a brief definition and then also kind of expand on the hideousness of that particular idea?
Paige: That image, the welfare queen, comes from the US context. It’s the idea of female-headed households with many children, so the woman at the centre of those households and dependent on the state, so a drain on state resources, both in a financial sense but especially in a healthcare sense and, obviously, the politics of healthcare in the US make that debate especially intense.
But it’s a heavily racialised image. So, it’s black and Latino women, immigrant women also, and it’s an urban image as well. What this image did is suggest that fertility and having babies is the source of poverty; that’s the reason for poverty and it’s the reason for exclusion. Again, it takes the focus away from the organisation of the economic system and away from structural racism. And, as Kalpana was saying, that image also participated in dramatically reducing state support for childcare, for healthcare, across the last 40 years in the US. So, the image comes from a very particular setting and it also serves a particular political function.
Kate: In my research in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, when the apartheid state launched a massive family planning drive that, as we’ve discussed, was very technicist in origin. There’s this idea that the promotion of contraception, and family planning more broadly, can only bring positive benefits to the disenfranchised majority population, particularly to poor, black women; that reducing the number of children you have is a pathway to prosperity, whilst completely ignoring the material conditions, as Paige and Kalpana have said, that we live in and the sort of broader economic context in which people live, work and raise their families.
Subhadra: Could you give us a bit of an example? What does that look like on the ground?
Kate: So, in 1974, the National Family Planning Project is launched in South Africa by the white minority government and this sees a massive investment in promoting hormonal contraception to the country’s indigenous population. I think one particularly interesting thing in this is the disjuncture between the National Party’s promotion of hormonal contraception, and the ways in which ideas of contraception become vernacularised amongst black women.
For instance, one of the things that my research has focused on - and there is currently an amazing PhD student at the University of the Free State called Priscillah Machinga, who is writing a PhD on family planning in Zimbabwe - is that to many black women, family planning meant birth spacing. It didn’t mean having less children, it just meant spreading out the number of children that a women would have over her lifetime.
This idea really runs contrary to the National Party’s idea of what family planning is and what it should be because, ultimately, it should be about reducing the black birth rate. And as I argue in my work, this is another way to maintain and uphold white supremacy.
Subhadra: Can we talk about that in other contexts with your work on Depo-Provera as well, where does that fit into this story?
Kate: In the context of the National Family Planning Programme, there are various long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs), reproductive technologies, that become explicitly racialised and are seen to be more suitable, broadly speaking, for black women than for white women. Perhaps the most infamous form of LARC in this context is Depo-Provera, which is the injectable contraception. One injection provides, roughly, three months of contraception.
And I think the really interesting thing about Depo-Provera is the healthcare professionals, and the state officials who are promoting it, do so in a way that reinforces and makes very racist assumptions about the ability of black women to autonomously control their fertility. And that hinges on a couple of ideas – 1) that they don’t have to negotiate the consent of a male partner to use Depo-Provera. It’s one injection every three months, it’s relatively covert in that sense. But also, there are these really, as I’ve said, fundamentally racist ideas that certain types of women, i.e. black women, these are very racialised discourses, just won’t remember to take a pill every day. So, if they’re injected with Depo-Provera, they’re sort of safe from pregnancy for three months.
And I think that one of the really shocking things is that in apartheid South Africa, we currently have no idea of how many women were given Depo-Provera without their consent. And contemporaneously, it remains often the most popular form of contraception in public health settings in South Africa. So, these issues didn’t end in 1994 when the ANC assumed Government and democracy came to South Africa.
Subhadra: Entirely, and it’s made me want to think more about the idea of a sterilisation without informed consent. Kalpana, do you want to come in on that?
Kalpana: In a way, we can see how these ideas are now much more broadly, in fact, adopted. Of course, Depo-Provera was also used against black and South Asian women, in particular, in Britain in the seventies and eighties. They were kind of prescribed without full consent and information, selectively.
But what we have now is, globally, the Gates Foundation, along with the British Government, launching this major, global initiative, FP-2020, which has now been extended, in fact. FP stands for family planning and, within that, again you have the core of that is the promotion of long-acting hormonal contraceptives. So, there’s Depo-Provera, there’s Jadelle, which used to be known as Norplant, and there’s Implanon. And, of course, the big pharmaceutical companies involved for Depo-Provera, Pfizer, are very, very centrally involved in the initiative.
And again, you have the same kind of ideas that, basically, women in the global south won’t be able to remember to take a pill every day, for example, but also it sort of mobilises these ideas that women’s families may not want them to use contraception. But, in fact, it’s not about giving those women more choices, because they don’t, in fact, have any other options offered to them, firstly, and, secondly, because this then becomes completely under the control of those health workers, who usually just appear once to inject them, who are not available when women experience side-effects and so on. And these contraceptives are actually being promoted as the most suitable in a context where there is very little healthcare. And I think that’s also something to think about when we talked earlier about neo-liberalism, they’re being specifically promoted in a situation where a woman doesn’t have a clinic within walking distance, or doesn’t have transport to go to one.
The latest version is a new form of delivery of Depo-Provera called Sayana Press, which is being promoted as something which women can actually inject themselves with. So, again this is being promoted in terms of individual choice, but it’s really being promoted for a situation where there is absolutely no health infrastructure available. And these kinds of vertical health interventions sort of coming in and targeting one issue, and completely allowing wider health systems to disintegrate, is something which is very much being promoted by the Gates Foundation which, as a lot of people know, is perhaps the most powerful actor in global health at the moment.
Subhadra: Yeah, it’s interesting, isn’t it, when it comes to conversations about large pharmaceutical companies and the drugs that they do and do not supply at price around the world, it’s interesting that there’s not really a shortage of contraception drugs available, at seemingly quite reasonable prices, compared to activists who had to fight for the right for Aids medication in South Africa, for example. The contrast of that is pretty striking, and to me it continues to be shocking every time I even hear it, because it was shocking when I learned about Marie Stopes, who was held up as a feminist icon for birth control, to know that her ideas came in the frame of eugenic thinking; to know that these ideas were still happening now, it’s happening in the course of our lifetimes. Paige, there’s aspects of Zika involved in this as well, isn’t there, and how that works?
Paige: Yes. Just to link what both Kate and Kalpana were saying about LARCs, the long-acting reversible contraceptives, to link that up with the question of what does eugenics mean to us today, it’s important to think about how these devices actually work. So, one of the most popular and iconic examples of the LARC is the IUD, that’s the intrauterine device, it’s the tiny little T-shaped device that’s implanted in the uterus by a doctor, and it makes the body sort of inhospitable to pregnancy. So, it requires, in the first instance, a doctor to place that and it’s literally stationed inside the body, and that means that a doctor is needed to remove that device.
So, as Kalpana was saying, the broader context of healthcare here matters. You get one of these things implanted and you can find yourself in a situation where you suddenly don’t have access to a doctor that can safely remove it, how is your body your own? That’s why Laura Briggs calls these devices ‘physician-controlled contraceptives’, because final reproductive control is located in medical professionals that may or may not exist, may or may not be accessible, may or may not have your interests at heart, and are certainly not the user of the actual device.
I did a study on a programme that provided these devices to women in Puerto Rico as part of the public health effort against the Zika virus, and I don’t want to downplay the positive impacts this programme made because suddenly a lot of women were able to access contraceptives of their choice, especially the IUD, which is the form that was promoted for free, and they wouldn’t have been able to without that programme. But a lot of them were then left out in the dust when the programme ended suddenly and all of a sudden there wasn’t a system there accessible for those women to secure the removal of that device, from inside their uterus remember, when they wanted to have them removed.
So, I think it’s for this reason that people like Laura Briggs are saying that LARCs, despite being a method of choice for many, and despite having profound positive impacts on so many peoples’ lives, that they inherit a kind of earlier eugenic impulse. And that’s especially, I think, when they’re kind of administered to a population in that managerial sense, of tinkering and shaping a group of people.
Subhadra: We’re coming up to the end of our time and this is a lot to think about, which is that in the course of a century in which we were supposed to be making huge advances as far as women’s rights were concerned, including their reproductive rights, it doesn’t really seem like the story is really that much different, compared to what it was at the turn of the 20th century, certainly at the global level. How do we walk the line between this really hideous history and also a potentially liberating future?
Paige: I think there's hope in women’s organising really. One of the things we talked about last week was the concept of movement of reproductive justice, and this is a response really to the limitation of reproductive rights discourse in second-wave feminism, which mostly just focused on access to abortion and birth control, the right to not have to reproduce. This concept was a way for women for whom the rights discourse didn’t really speak to, and this is a lot of women whose fertility was, historically, and not so historically, discouraged, or actively impeded in through forced sterilisation, so women with disabilities, women of colour, poor women, immigrant women. And a key part of that is freedom from reproducing must come with the freedom to reproduce, especially for those groups of people who have been deemed unfit for reproduction by the eugenicist state.
So, for me, that movement is hopeful because it decentres the uterus as the only site of life-making and it brings in questions of healthcare, and housing, and food, and freedom from environmental racism as key ingredients for reproductive justice. So, it’s like a move away from this liberal, individual idea of choice to the expansive objective of social justice.
Subhadra: It’s almost as if women were people too.
Paige: Imagine that.
Kate: Women are powerful and community organising is powerful. I’ve been privileged to work with an amazing sexual health NGO in South Africa, The Sexual and Reproductive Justice Coalition, who run a variety of campaigns but, at the last election in South Africa, they basically dissected every party’s manifesto and launched a campaign called Elect to Protect, where they really put the manifestos under the spotlight. They held hustings where they invited people from the political parties to be clear and definitive on what they were going to do to further reproductive justice in South Africa.
I often feel that activist groups in the global south are really leading these very transformative conversations and we, as academics, are indebted to them for doing that. I guess also I think we, as decolonial feminist researchers, have a role to play in shining a light on the historic linkages between eugenics in the 19th century, which people might think are over, and the way in which policies are implemented now.
And as Kalpana said a while back, as feminist and decolonial scholars, we need to bring a critical eye to the role of philanthrocapitalist groups, and the interventions that they are playing in global health discourses, particularly groups such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, who are really leading the global conversation at the moment on family planning. And I think here the work of the sociologist, Lindsay McGaughey, is great in that respect. Her book, No Such Thing as a Free Gift, is really worth reading if anyone is interested in learning more about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Kalpana: I just completely agree with what’s just been said really. I think the hope and the inspiration for me, again, comes from those movements of women who have really put up this sustained resistance to these kinds of interventions in their lives, and continue to fight for the kind of contraception that they would like to see. So, it’s not about not wanting contraception, it’s about the fact that this should be safe, that it should be within their control, and that it should be genuinely up to them when they use it, which is never going to be the case when you have targets, when you have numbers, when you have population policies coming into the picture.
And you’ve seen these really major protest movements, for example, against forcible sterilisation, which we haven’t talked about, which is very much part of this picture and is still going on. So, in India, where resistance to that has been linked to resistance to dispossession by corporates, it’s been linked to the resistance to the far-right, the Hindu supremacist government you’ve got at the moment in India. You’ve had indigenous women in Peru resisting and exposing the whole history there of forcible sterilisation.
So, all of these movements, in many ways, when I think of reproductive justice, I think of it as having multiple starting points in a way. I think what is really interesting about reproductive justice, and Kate has partly said this already, is the way in which very often activists in the global north are actually kind of learning from those struggles which took place, and are still taking place, in the global south.
Subhadra: This was the goal of wanting to have you all here and it’s also the goal of the podcast entirely, which is that, if we can just start to listen to each other a bit more, we move together toward a better place. 

If you want to learn more about Thomas Malthus, Robert J. Mayhew’s biography is as good a place as any to start.

Paul Erlich is an American biologist and Professor at Standford University, who gained fame for his 1968 book, The Population Bomb.

Dr Linsey McGooey’s book No Such Thing as a Free Gift – The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy is published by Verso Books.

The Sexual and Reproductive Justice Coalition encouraged voters in South Africa to Elect To Protect reproductive justice.

You can find out more about Dr Michelle Murphy’s work from her website, and about Dr Priscillah Machinga from her staff page at The University of the Free State.