Expanding Eugenics or Improving Health Care in China: Commentary on the Provisions of the Standing Committee of the Gansu People’s Congress Concerning the Prohibition of Reproduction by Intellectually Impaired Persons

AuthorLinda Johnson
Date01 June 1997
Published date01 June 1997
From the earliest marriage regulations in the Chinese Soviets, there has been
an official assumption that China should be populated by its fittest stock.
Various measures have appeared over the years in pursuit of this aim, the
most recent of which, a national law restricting reproduction,1has attracted
considerable controversy as a result of its eugenic intent. In this nationalistic
aim, however, China does not stand alone as similar eugenic positions have
been held not only in Nazi Germany but also in the United States of
America, the United Kingdom and other jurisdictions generally considered
to be ‘enlightened’. In China the eugenic thread can be traced back at the
national level, through the Marriage Law and its various regulations, but it
is also manifest at the more localized provincial level. One recent recondite
example is the ‘Provisions of the Standing Committee of the Gansu People’s
Congress concerning the Prohibition of Reproduction by Intellectually
Impaired Persons’ (translated and annexed to this commentary) with the
expressed objectives to ‘improve the quality of the population’ and ‘reduce
the burden on the society and on the families of intellectually impaired
persons.’ As such, the provisions in themselves could attract the label ‘eugenic’
but this appellation becomes more forceful in the context of broader national
concerns, such as those about population growth which have spawned, since
the early 1970s, programmes of sterilization and abortion throughout China
aimed at containing the quantity, whilst perfecting the quality of the Chinese
population. International involvement with population control has not
© Blackwell Publishers Ltd 1997, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA
*Department of Law, University of Hertfordshire, St. Albans Campus, 7
Hatfield Road, St Albans, Hertfordshire AL1 3RS, England
I would like to thank Veronica Pearson and Edward Epstein for their comments on earlier
drafts and Edward Epstein for translating the Gansu Provisions annexed to this article. The
responsibility for any errors rests with me.
ISSN: 0263–323X, pp. 199–234
Expanding Eugenics or Improving Health Care in China:
Commentary on the Provisions of the Standing Committee of the
Gansu People’s Congress Concerning the Prohibition of
Reproduction by Intellectually Impaired Persons
necessarily discouraged eugenic policies as organizations such as the United
Nations and the World Bank have sponsored family planning services in
countries like East Timor and Brazil where sterilization programmes have
been implemented against particular segments of those societies.
This commentary aims to examine the Gansu Provisions relating to
sterilization in a number of related contexts:2the international context of
eugenics, the Chinese context of eugenic policies, and the local significance
of these particular provisions for the stated eugenic aims of the Gansu
People’s Congress. It is fairly common in China for policies to be given a
trial run in the form of provincial legislation or even national regulations
before national laws are proposed and it seems that the policy on eugenics
in China is no exception to this. In 1986, the Ministry of Public Health
issued regulations on medical examinations preceding marriage which included
eugenic measures3and in 1988, Gansu Province passed its provisions
addressing the intellectually impaired. How effectively either of these sets of
rules have been enforced is impossible to assess on available data but the
limited resources of the Ministry of Public Health and provincial governments,
together with the inevitable reluctance of some officials and doctors to
comply with such measures, would tend to suggest that they have, at best,
attracted erratic and partial enforcement. Yet, as precursors of national
legislation, they are particularly interesting as they demonstrate a commitment
to eugenic policy and give some reality to the assertion that the national
legislation does not represent the genesis of a new policy in China but is,
rather, an official formalization of an existing and possibly entrenched approach
towards those designated as ‘unfit’.
The word ‘eugenics’ was coined in 1883 by the founder of the British Eugenics
Society, Francis Galton, who wanted to improve society through increased
reproduction by the ‘better stock’ and limiting the reproductive capacity of
its less desirable members – the mentally ill, the feeble-minded, habitual
paupers, and criminals.4It was the negative aspect, preventing the unfit from
reproducing, which took hold. In Britain, fear of degeneration within the
population fired the eugenics movement. A government inquiry5into mental
deficiency and sterilization, appointed in 1932, did recommend sterilization
of the feeble-minded. The proposal met with popular support but was not
implemented, probably because of the Second World War and the fears of
Nazism it precipitated.6
The assumptions underlying eugenic measures worldwide are that the
worth of a society is simply a reflection of the sum of the traits possessed
by the individual citizens of which it is composed, and that mental ‘defects,’
physical ‘disabilities’ and intellectual ‘impairment’ are hereditary. Advances
in medical science have had their effect on eugenics policies, so that in the
© Blackwell Publishers Ltd 1997
twentieth century the aim of eugenics was not only to control reproduction
by those judged to be inferior, but also to discover carriers of inherited
‘defects’ so that their reproductive activity could also be controlled or
restricted.7In more recent years the determinism which was taken as an
essential part of genetic theory has also been questioned and the interplay
between different genes and between genes and the environment have
become significant areas of study.8
In the early twentieth century, however, the United States of America
experienced a eugenics movement which took on board Galton’s ideas9and
compulsory sterilization laws were enacted throughout the country to
control those considered to be the diseased and the degenerate.10 By 1937,
thirty states had enacted eugenic laws11 and there were restrictions placed
on immigration for the purpose of ensuring that the majority of the United
States population remained of British or North European descent. Many of
the coercive sterilization laws were not enforced but by 1935 20,000 people
in the United States had been forcibly sterilized and many states retained
the laws until well into the 1980s.12
Similarly, in Nazi Germany the eugenics movement began as a scientific
programme devised by intelligent and educated specialists to promote racial
hygiene. As with the British and American eugenicists, the concern of German
scientists was initially the elimination of what were believed to be hereditary
genetic diseases, including feeble-mindedness, manic depression, schizophrenia,
epilepsy, and physical malformation – only later were extermination
programmes directed towards ethnic groups. By the beginning of the Second
World War, 300,000 to 400,000 people had been sterilized in Germany and
extensive euthanasia programmes had been carried out against children
institutionalized for mental and physical disabilities and against inmates of
psychiatric hospitals.13 The major difference between eugenic programmes
in Nazi Germany and their counterparts in Britain and the United States
of America was that the political situation in Germany allowed a policy of
sterilization14 to become, as a practical reality, a policy of extermination.
The theoretical assumptions were the same and the perceived social interest
in producing ‘better offspring’ was considered sufficient justification.15
Whilst eugenic theory has been discredited because of its lack of scientific
credibility as well as its violation of personal autonomy and ‘rights’ of
reproduction, the assumptions on which it was based continue to inform
lawful practices inside and outside China. Certainly, the idea of imposing
sterilization on individuals for the benefit of society generally, without regard
for the interests of the individual concerned, has been dismissed as
unconstitutional within the United States of America and beyond the
jurisdiction of the courts in the United Kingdom and Canada. Yet the image
persists of physical and mental ‘disability’ as a state of being which must be
controlled, diminished, even eradicated from the population in the increasingly
widespread use of genetic screening in North America, Canada, Australasia,
and Europe.
© Blackwell Publishers Ltd 1997

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