In the Name of Liberalism: Illiberal Social Policy in the USA and Britain

By Desmond King | Go to book overview

3

'Cutting off the Worst' Voluntary Sterilization
in Britain in the 1930s

EUGENICS, a commitment to modifying the national gene pool for the benefit of society, enjoyed significant support among influential British politicians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and a number of Mental Deficiency Acts incorporated some eugenist aims. 1 The lobbying of eugenists resulted, in 1932, in the appointment of a special committee by the Minister of Health to report and make recommendations on the sterilization of the 'feeble-minded' in England and Wales. The Committee was designed to generate support for a Royal Commission on the question, an inquiry which would in turn provide the basis for legislation. It was potentially the most substantial policy achievement of the eugenics movement in Britain.

This chapter undertakes three tasks. First, it reviews, briefly, the historical and intellectual context in which eugenics developed. Second, it analyses the context of the Brock Committee's appointment, the content of its deliberations, and subsequent efforts to create sufficient momentum in favour of eugenist legislation. 2 This discussion demonstrates how knowledge or expertise was deployed to justify this social policy initiative. Third, it examines why the initiative to establish voluntary sterilization failed in Britain when it succeeded in the United States.

The chapter presents three claims on the basis of this case study. First, it shows how the campaign for voluntary sterilization was conducted within the policy-making elite, insulated from societal forces (and in the absence of strong electoral support) until efforts to implement the recommendation commenced. Second, the arguments for and against the proposal turned fundamentally on the quality of the scientific evidence or expertise presented by advocates of voluntary sterilization: however, although the Committee reached a firm view about the evidence, it failed to convince sceptics. Finally, the importance of political considerations in resisting this illiberal measure is demonstrated. The evidence establishes that policy can

____________________
1
For a history of the Eugenics Society and its aims, see Mazumdar (1992). For the movement generally see Kevles (1986), Stepan (1991) and Jones (1980).
2
For the best existing studies see Macnicol (1989, 1992) and Thomson (1998), ch. 5.

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