Sunday, January 27, 2013

Pseudo-Science and Selection

This item appears today in the English-language edition of the Israeli daily Ha'aretz:

Israel admits Ethiopian women were given birth control shots

Health Minister director general instructs all gynecologists in Israel's four health maintenance organizations not to inject women with long-acting contraceptive Depo-Provera if they do not understand ramifications of treatment.  
By | Jan.27, 2013 |
A government official has for the first time acknowledged the practice of injecting women of Ethiopian origin with the long-acting contraceptive Depo-Provera.

Health Ministry Director General Prof. Ron Gamzu has instructed the four health maintenance organizations to stop the practice as a matter of course.
The ministry and other state agencies had previously denied knowledge or responsibility for the practice, which was first reported five years ago.
Gamzu’s letter instructs all gynecologists in the HMOs "not to renew prescriptions for Depo-Provera for women of Ethiopian origin if for any reason there is concern that they might not understand the ramifications of the treatment.”
He also instructed physicians to avail themselves of translators if need be.

Gamzu’s letter came in response to a letter from Sharona Eliahu-Chai of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, representing several women’s rights and Ethiopian immigrants’ groups. The letter demanded the injections cease immediately and that an investigation be launched into the practice.

About six weeks ago, on an Educational Television program journalist Gal Gabbay revealed the results of interviews with 35 Ethiopian immigrants. The women’s testimony could help explain the almost 50-percent decline over the past 10 years in the birth rate of Israel’s Ethiopian community. According to the program, while the women were still in transit camps in Ethiopia they were sometimes intimidated or threatened into taking the injection. “They told us they are inoculations,” said one of the women interviewed. “They told us people who frequently give birth suffer. We took it every three months. We said we didn’t want to.”

Coming as it did on what has been designated Holocaust Memorial Day, the anniversary of the Red Army's liberation of Auschwitz, it brought to mind for some people comparisons with the Nazis, who as we know carried out dubious "medical" experiments on human beings, and were keen to eliminate those they considered inferior stock, though they went a bit further than administering birth control injections. But without going into the general subject of why people fall so easily into such comparisons, which can be from ignorance as much as malevolence, or simply because people have no other words to express their horror, the allusion to Nazism is unnecessary.

What we may have in mind, apart from the all-too common habit some professionals and people in authority have of disregarding the views and feelings of lesser mortals they treat, and then covering up what they have done, is the echo of a movement called eugenics. Its idea was that social problems can be solved, and the human race improved, by selective breeding, and that means discouraging or preventing some inferior people, whether individuals or supposed "races" from having offspring. While the Nazis took their "scientific" racism further by murdering disabled people before moving on to entire racial categories such as Jews and Gypsies, they were not unique in the adoption of such ideas.

The precedents for the Holocaust lay in the German militarist and colonial experience, first in South West Africa (present day Namibia) against the Herero and other peoples who resisted them, and then directing the Turkish armed forces in the onslaught on the Armenians (the first time the word 'Holocaust' was used in its modern sense). 

 But before this eugenics had already become fashionable among many Western thinkers who liked to believe they had a rational and "scientific" answer to problems, such as the Fabians. It was none other than Winston Churchill who, as a minister in a Liberal government, sought to introduce measures for sterilising "the feeble-minded". But it was in the 'Land of the Free' , the United States, that such ideas really caught on in practice. Forget about "the melting pot" and "All men being created equal". (never mind women!). By the beginning of the 20th century upper class Americans were not just worried how to keep Blacks down, and restrict the number of Jews and Italians arriving, they wanted some way of dealing with inferior, anti-social and "degenerated" white trash too. And a "science" which sought to improve the racial stock by laws seemed just the thing.

Here's American writer Edwin Black:

In 1909, California became the third state to adopt such laws. Ultimately, eugenics practitioners coercively sterilized some 60,000 Americans, barred the marriage of thousands, forcibly segregated thousands in "colonies," and persecuted untold numbers in ways we are just learning. Before World War II, nearly half of coercive sterilizations were done in California, and even after the war, the state accounted for a third of all such surgeries.

Eugenics would have been so much bizarre parlor talk had it not been for extensive financing by corporate philanthropies, specifically the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Harriman railroad fortune. They were all in league with some of America's most respected scientists hailing from such prestigious universities as Stamford, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. These academicians espoused race theory and race science, and then faked and twisted data to serve eugenics' racist aims.

Stanford president David Starr Jordan originated the notion of "race and blood" in his 1902 racial epistle "Blood of a Nation," in which the university scholar declared that human qualities and conditions such as talent and poverty were passed through the blood.

In 1904, the Carnegie Institution established a laboratory complex at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island that stockpiled millions of index cards on ordinary Americans, as researchers carefully plotted the removal of families, bloodlines and whole peoples. From Cold Spring Harbor, eugenics advocates agitated in the legislatures of America, as well as the nation's social service agencies and associations.

The Harriman railroad fortune paid local charities, such as the New York Bureau of Industries and Immigration, to seek out Jewish, Italian and other immigrants in New York and other crowded cities and subject them to deportation, trumped up confinement or forced sterilization.

The Rockefeller Foundation helped found the German eugenics program and even funded the program that Josef Mengele worked in before he went to Auschwitz.

Upon returning from Germany in 1934, where more than 5,000 people per month were being forcibly sterilized, the California eugenics leader C. M. Goethe bragged to a colleague:
"You will be interested to know that your work has played a powerful part in shaping the opinions of the group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler in this epoch-making program. Everywhere I sensed that their opinions have been tremendously stimulated by American thought . . . I want you, my dear friend, to carry this thought with you for the rest of your life, that you have really jolted into action a great government of 60 million people."[6]

After the Second World War, when the extent and horror of Nazi inhumanity became known, eugenics became not so fashionable, and the way British and American ideas and practice had influenced the Nazis was not something anyone would boast about. In 1948, the same year that the State of Israel was born in blood and fire, and Palestinians experienced the Nakba, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution defining the crime of genocide: 
...any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Article 2[3]
Note Article 2d my emphasis.

But the UN resolution was no more able to stop the practice than it put an end to pogroms, wars and massacres. It did perhaps mean that those carrying out measures like forced sterilisation were less open about what they did, and governments did not proclaim it as their policy.

Nevertheless, it went on, and the victims in Europe were the Roma, or Gypsies, as though Hitler had not succeeded in doing enough to reduce their numbers. Reports came in of Gypsy women being sterilised against their will or without their knowledge in Czechoslovakia, under both "Communist" and "democratic" regimes, and in social democratic Sweden.

As for the United States, nothing could be finer and more free than Carolina...

Thirty-one other states had eugenics programs. Virginia and California each sterilized more people than North Carolina. But no program was more aggressive.
Only North Carolina gave social workers the power to designate people for sterilization. They often relied on I.Q. tests like those done on Mr. Holt, whose scores reached 73. But for some victims who often spent more time picking cotton than in school, the I.Q. tests at the time were not necessarily accurate predictors of capability. For example, as an adult Mr. Holt held down three jobs at once, delivering newspapers, working at a grocery store and doing maintenance for a small city.
Wealthy businessmen, among them James Hanes, the hosiery magnate, and Dr. Clarence Gamble, heir to the Procter & Gamble fortune, drove the eugenics movement. They helped form the Human Betterment League of North Carolina in 1947, and found a sympathetic bureaucrat in Wallace Kuralt, the father of the television journalist Charles Kuralt.
A proponent of birth control in all forms, Mr. Kuralt used the program extensively when he was director of the Mecklenburg County welfare department from 1945 to 1972. That county had more sterilizations than any other in the state.
Over all, about 70 percent of the North Carolina operations took place after 1945, and many of them were on poor young women and racial minorities. Nonwhite minorities made up about 40 percent of those sterilized, and girls and women about 85 percent.
The program, while not specifically devised to target racial minorities, affected black Americans disproportionately because they were more often poor and uneducated and from large rural families. 

In the Czech Republic a report in 2006 said:
...the Czech government’s independent ombudsman, Otakar Motejl, released a detailed report last year charging that “potentially problematic” sterilizations of Roma women have been public knowledge for more than 15 years.
In the report, Motejl identified dozens of cases of coercive sterilization between 1979 and 2001, and called for criminal investigations and possible prosecution against several health care workers and administrators.

It will be no consolation for Ethiopian Jewish women in Israel to know that having been brought to Israel by authorities who then had second thoughts about their presence, they were no worse treated than other people considered a "problem" in other lands. But we might ask why, if those administering Depo Provera (a drug about whose adverse side effects there are conflicting views) felt they were doing this for the women's own good, they had to rely on coercion or deceit to do it, and then tried to keep quiet about what they had done? I am a bit rusty about the Hippocratic Oath, but I suppose that is open to interpretation.

As for eugenics, it might have almost crawled underground for a time, but it has not gone away. And with society in a mess right now, and looking for ways to blame its victims or have them blame each other for the problems, we should be on our guard against a comeback for this pseudo-science, as for racism and antisemitism.   As Hegel put it cynically, "The one thing History teaches is that men and women learn nothing from history". We have to try and prove him wrong.

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