Skip to content

Unlearning Eugenics: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Disability in Post-Nazi Europe

Review by David Peace

On 30 October 2020, in defiance of anti-COVID-19 measures to restrict public gatherings, over 100,000 mask-clad demonstrators took to the streets of Warsaw to protest proposed changes to Poland’s abortion laws. Only a few days earlier, on 22 October, Poland’s constitutional tribunal ruled that abortions sought on the grounds of ‘foetal defects’ or ‘congenital malformations’ were ‘incompatible’ with Article 38 of the Polish Constitution. Consequently, abortion has now become only legally permissible in Poland in either cases of rape and incest, or where there is potential threat to a mother’s life or health, or instances of irreparable damage to a foetus. Reportedly, these cases represent only 2% of all legal terminations in Poland. As Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, stated in a tweet shortly after the announcement, the new ruling has in effect removed the basis ‘for almost all legal abortions in Poland’ and amounts to ‘a ban and violates human rights.’ However, despite the days of protest marches across Polish cities and popular backlash against the ruling, Poland’s shift towards a curtailment of access to abortion services echoes a growing trend among traditionally Catholic European countries as populist parties in Slovakia, Hungary, Italy, Spain, and Croatia, seek to emulate the Polish legislative model to disrupt what they perceive to be the overt liberalisation of abortion as a reproductive right.

Yet, under these legislative changes there is evidence of the continuation of a historically contentious and controversial moral battleground between groups advocating for women’s reproductive rights on the one hand and disability rights campaigners on the other. As has recently been observed, these groups have now been effectively deployed against each other in recent years by conservatives in both the US and Europe who have framed the debate on the curtailment of abortion rights as an advancement of the protections for disabled persons, arguably both born and unborn. In what ways can historical research help us to understand the subtle negotiations and points of contention between these two ‘traditionally progressive’ groups and the nature of the ethical dilemmas in dispute between them regarding access to abortion? In response to this question, Dagmar Herzog’s Unlearning Eugenics has come as an important account of the intertwined intellectual history of this impasse. Her analysis presents disruptive questions and unsettling conclusions about the nature of shared European memories of the Nazis’ continent-wide programme of extermination during the 1930s and 1940s, and its lingering shadow over the disputes on reproductive and disability rights across the post-war decades.

How can we begin to make sense of this intertwined intellectual history which appears to present incommensurable interpretations of the legacy of Nazi eugenics in current rights discourses? In one instance, the legacy of the Third Reich has influenced ideas on the ethical basis of reproductive autonomy free from state interference, yet simultaneously it also demonstrates the need to provide legal mechanisms to protect the identities, cultures, and lives of the disabled. Herzog argues that the current moral impasse between women’s rights groups and disability activists has arisen out of the differing ways in which post-war Europeans have attempted to ‘unlearn eugenics’ in the wake of the Holocaust. She demonstrates that these groups have placed differing emphases on the legacy of the Third Reich’s role in both the creation of a politics of state-controlled reproductive health and the mass murder of the disabled. In turn, Herzog argues, this division over the emphasis of the Nazi’s legacy has become an ‘intellectual epicentre’ that has influenced the relative importance each group has placed on the primacy of either the protection of disabled lives or reproductive autonomy.

In her assessment of the historical development of this impasse, perhaps surprisingly, Herzog attempts to disrupt the generally accepted ‘master narrative’ of the 1960s and 1970s – that reproductive rights were the result of both a decline in religiosity and a rise in secular ideas related to the sexual revolution and the ‘ascent of feminism’. Rather, she highlights that during this period there was a complex ‘mutability’ between secularism and religiosity, in which a new post-war generation of Protestant and Catholic theologians attempted to argue the moral basis of abortion within a specifically Christian tradition. Herzog highlights that the engagement of Christian theologians who supported the moral foundations of abortion during the 1960s and 1970s should not be surprising given the engagement of clergymen in France, Belgium, Holland, Italy, and Ireland in the debates on the ethical use of contraception in the middle of the twentieth century to support parishioners who desired ‘to reconcile faith and family planning’. Additionally, she emphasises the role of senior members of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy in challenging the Vatican’s opposition to the birth control pill, such as Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens and several archbishops in West Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

Given the complex relationship between Christianity and the family planning debates of the 1930s to the 1960s, Herzog believes that it is unsurprising that the period traditionally regarded as the ‘sexual revolution’ gave rise to Christian theological arguments for the moral basis of abortion across varying denominational differences, such as the Catholic member of the Dominican order Stefan Pfürtner and the Protestant theologian Gyula Barcazy. However, these arguments were rooted in broader discussions on the value of the lives of the disabled, among Christian leaders who were arguing that ‘anticipated foetal abnormality or deformity’ could provide a foundation for abortion to become a ‘moral choice – especially in view of a couple’s anxieties about their capacity to raise a disabled child effectively.’ It appears these attempts to argue the moral basis of abortion within the Christian tradition led to the development of striking assumptions during this period among both religious and secular proponents of abortion rights – that ‘to bear and raise a disabled child would be an especially awful fate.’ Yet this does raise the question as to how representative of the Christian, particularly Roman Catholic, moral position this was, and whether the examples given by Herzog were the exceptions to the rule which has now become the intellectual foundation of recent populist opposition to the expansion of rights to abortion services across Europe.

In the second half of the book, Herzog shifts perspective to question how disability rights activism began to challenge popular assumptions during the early post-war period about the relative value of disabled bodies and the moral arguments in favour of abortion in instances of foetal anomalies developed in both Christian and secular contexts. To uncover the roots of the relationship between current invocations of the shadow of eugenics over the historical impasse between disability rights activism and reproductive rights, Herzog attempts to navigate the complex and intertwined history of the eruption of disability rights activism that developed in tandem to both the expansion of reproductive rights for women and LGBT activism during the late post-war period, and how the long shadow of eugenics hung over the moral discussion about rights to abortion on grounds of foetal anomalies.

Specifically, she focuses on the transition of disability rights into mainstream political discourses across Western Europe during the 1980s and 1990s and the transition towards increasingly positive attitudes towards disability. Herzog contextualises this ‘eruption of disability activism’ within its close relationship to the development of LGBT activism during the same period which emphasised a ‘pluralization of ideas about bodies, intimate interdependencies, and familial arrangements’. Within this context, she points to the success of disability rights activism at redefining discrimination against disability as a form of ‘racism’ by highlighting the Nazis’ programme of genocide which often correlated disability with racial deficiency.

Of resonance during these debates was the Australian bioethicist Peter Singer’s controversial arguments in favour of infanticide and the moral legitimacy of killing severely disabled new-borns. Herzog highlights how the shadow of Nazi eugenics lingered over the response to Singer’s argument, as many disability rights activists were quick to reply that the work of Holocaust historians during the 1990s was beginning to show clearly that the mass killing of the disabled by the Nazis during the late 1930s paved the way for the atrocities of the Holocaust. This legacy of the Holocaust prompted accusations of eugenics against advocates of abortion by both conservative groups and disability rights activists either to restrict access to sexual and reproductive health or to safeguard what were perceived to be vulnerable lives at risk. She presents this usurpation of the moral arguments formed within the context of the predominantly left-leaning disability rights movement of the 1970s-1990s by Christian conservatives today as one of the major ironies of the current moral deadlock hanging over debates on access to abortion rights across Europe.

This slender volume achieves a great deal. Herzog has presented a serious contribution to the history of eugenics as an ideological spectre across European intellectual history and its influence on the development of rights activism throughout the post-war period. As such, the book should be taken seriously by those who wish to understand the historical context of the important current ethical disputes between disability rights and reproductive rights on questions about access to abortion on grounds of foetal anomalies. This important book is timely as we appear to be moving into a period of substantial social upheaval across Europe, as seemingly sacrosanct beliefs regarding individual autonomy and rights which were developed in the shadow of the crimes of the Third Reich are once more being challenged. As Herzog demonstrates throughout the book, the question of the possible ways in which we can ‘unlearn eugenics’ is perhaps as pressing today as it has ever been.

Unlearning Eugenics: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Disability in Post-Nazi Europe, by Dagmar Herzog (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2020; 184pp.; £17.23 softcover)

Dr David Peace is a Research Fellow at the Department of History at the University of Hamburg. His research explores the historical relationship between developments in quantitative analysis and the medical biosciences across the 20th century, specialising in the influence of eugenics and human genetics in population health policies.

Image Credit: Protests against Abortion Restriction in Krakow, Wikimedia Commons/Jakub Halun Licence: CC BY-SA 4.0

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.