Kaustav Bhattacharyya
Child Protection Amounts to Eugenic Selection?

In the name of protecting children from ‘unfit’ parents, the West is going the Nazi-Fascist way to cast future generations in a certain mould — at the expense of the primary social unit called family. Such countries can no longer pride themselves as liberal democracies.

A propos Sumedha Sarvadaman’s article, “Save Indian Children from First World Governments,” when one closely reads through the different child welfare cases in western Europe — particularly those in the Nordic countries — one finds a litany of expressions like ‘incapable mother’, ‘inattentive father’ being sprouted forth as rationale for removing the children from their biological parents.

These statements clearly smack of the eugenics ideal of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parenting, which triggered in this writer’s mind an interest in investigating the causal linkage between eugenics and child welfare practices in western European welfare states.

Eugenics is defined as ‘a social philosophy advocating the improvement of human genetic traits through the promotion of higher reproduction of people with desired traits (positive eugenics), and reduced reproduction of people with less-desired or undesired traits (negative eugenics)’.

United States eugenics advocacy poster

United States eugenics advocacy poster

There is one particular definition that strikes one contextually; it’s from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary: ‘A science that tries to improve the human race by controlling which people become parents’, which succinctly defines the attempts of the Child Welfare Services (CWS) or Child Protection Services (CPS) to discipline and penalise so-called ‘poor parenting’.

The ‘science’ of eugenics traces its origins to the end-19th century idea of biological hereditary race and human species with the first and most comprehensive enunciation of eugenics being captured in a book, Hereditary Genius (1869) by Francis Galton. Galton can be termed as the founding father of modern eugenics. His ideas initiated formation of eugenics societies across the Western world.

A painting of Sir Francis Galton by Charles Wellington Furse

A painting of Sir Francis Galton by Charles Wellington Furse

With the Nazi-Fascist appropriation of the idea of eugenics, which sought to justify their reprehensible and disgusting racist extermination policies, the ‘science’ acquired an odious character and was discarded as a respectable discipline.

Despite this nasty taint, eugenics programmes persisted in countries like Sweden and Denmark even through the post-War decades till the early 1970s, and family along with children remained central to the implementation and focus of eugenics policy.

There were several measures as part of the broader eugenics programme but, just focusing on the family and children dimension, it implied barring the ‘mentally retarded’, ‘insane’, ‘unhealthy like those with physical disabilities and diseases’ from bearing children in case of women and rearing in case of men.

Sterilisation, both forced and voluntary, which prevented individuals from breeding ‘socially undesirable’ children, formed one of the key instruments of implementation of eugenics policies. To quote a valid statistic, in Sweden about 62,000 sterilisations were performed between the years 1935 and 1975 with active support of the social democratic movements (Spektorowski & Mizrarchi, 2004). Hence, the notion of ‘ideal’ children and family remained a core theme of the eugenics philosophy.

Many perceive the fascist embrace of eugenics as an aberration, which is rather misleading since one of the leading slogans of the Nazis were ‘Kirche, Kueche, Kinder’, which translates to ‘Church, Kitchen, Children’, where child-rearing practices formed a core part of their party programme for a ‘pure’ society besides the idea of a ‘big state’ that transcended individual and family interests and acted in the greater collective good of humanity remained a shared thought between eugenics and Fascists.

In post-War western Europe, the influential study by Alva Myrdal and Viola Klein, “Women’s Two Roles: Home and Work,” dictated family and child welfare policies where she postulated the ‘Children First’ idea. Children were perceived beyond the context of the immediate family and as the ‘future’ where their well-being and welfare became broader concerns for society.

Eugenics child welfare policies, affirming faith in the notion of ‘parental licensing’ plan, were initially proposed by Galton and then furthered by LaFollette, JC Westman and David Lykken in the 20th century. The fundamental premise of the proposed parent licensing plan is that some couple are ‘unfit’ to rear children and that their children would be undesirable members of society!

The criteria for ‘fitness’ varied from mental illnesses, intelligence to lifestyle-related social ills like drug abuse, alcoholism to far more nebulous aspects like attentiveness and caring affection towards children.

In case the ‘undesirable’ couples can’t be prevented from having children, the mechanism of foster care or adoption is to be adopted. There was a clear role envisaged for ‘state agencies’ to remove the neglected and ill-treated children from their biological or natural parents and place them in a foster care homes.

Increasingly, the child welfare and family practices adopted a subtler posture, directing its attention towards the expansion of preventive counselling services, with a burgeoning number of child welfare service agencies being active players in intervention and monitoring. The strategies became more persuasive rather than brutal brow-beating in terms of physical violence involved in the sterilisation process.

I wish to disagree with the premise and methodology above and propose that contemporary disguised eugenics policies manifest through CWS/CPS deploy symbolic violence based on the notions of Bourdieu, which defines it as, “the violence which is exercised upon a social agent with his or her complicity” (Pierre Bourdieu & JD Wacquant, 2000).

With persuasion by a stick in hand, the threat of the strong arm of the state coming down heavily on the errant families and parents is hardly consensual. The literature goes on to cite instances of symbolic violence involving weaker and marginalised sections of society like gender relations where women silently accept the higher wages for men since they ‘deserve’ more.

Extending the logic to child welfare practices, there is a tacit acceptance of the definition of ‘competent’ mother like someone who does not indulge eating habits of children or the adequate number of toys available to toddlers in their measured living room.

Symbolic violence erupts into outright coercive physical violence, for instance, forcible removal of children from homes deploying police forces, when this tacit complicity ruptures and the parents refuse to acknowledge the standardised definitions of state agencies like the CWS.

In some way the eugenics movement reinvented itself in a 21st century context with a more networked state where there were willing actors like civil society NGOs to strengthen the juggernaut of the state. Hence, here the big state adopts all the characteristics of an authoritarian nature much closer to the despotic, illiberal variety when their instruments are engaged in punishing families and uprooting children from their biological families.

The coordinated dynamics between the different arms of the state — the police, the CWS, the schools etc — is a chilling reminder of the dangers when the benevolent state lapses into an ideological one where it stands above the interests and greater good of its citizens.

Most importantly, the ideals of family and child welfare call for an authoritarian state with its heavy arm and machinery to implement those measures. If we wish to conceive of a child welfare system within a liberal democratic framework, we need to be prepared for a paradigm shift from the Manichean notions of a ‘good’ parent and a ‘bad’ parent. India with its ancient civilization (or sanskriti) along with its heritage and rich legacies of humanism can play a pro-active global role in countering this unpleasant concept of child and family welfare.

References available in the next page

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