[FoRK] Throw-away babies

Adam L Beberg beberg at mithral.com
Wed Feb 9 11:54:33 PST 2005

This is scary. Combined with all the other things they are up to, soon 
they will all be stronger, smarter, and healthier then us too!

Luckily research is open and DNA is easy to copy, so we'll be able to 
catch up only one generation after we get tired of being an obsolete 
18th century fundamentalist christian nation. Sadly, it's going to take 
at least 20 or 30 years of technological regression before we snap out 
of it and overthrow our fundamentalist overlords.

Until then remember, science is evil and the world is flat. Now go read 
your bible like a good little American. Praise Jesus - he was an 
American ya know ;)

Adam L. Beberg


Throw-away babies
Frank Dikotter
12 January 1996
The growth of eugenic policies and practices in China

The People's Republic of China recently passed eugenic legislation to
prevent what are called "inferior births" from becoming a burden on
the state and society. As Chen Muhua, Vice-President of the Standing
Committee of the National People's Congress and President of the
Women's Federation, declared: "Eugenics not only affects the success
of the state and the prosperity of the race, but also the well-being
of the people and social stability." Although such ideas have long
been discredited in the West on both ethical and scientific grounds,
eugenic laws in China have been implemented at the provincial level
since 1988, while first drafts of the present national law were made
some time ago. As a development which potentially endows medical
authorities with the power to grant or deny life to millions of
children, its medical, ethical and political implications deserve to
be more closely scrutinized than has so far been the case.

Whether or not all the allegations made by the Channel 4 programme
Return to the Dying Room will stand up to closer scrutiny, it is
beyond doubt that the increase over the past few years in the number
of children suffering from minor accidents of birth who are abandoned
is closely related to the spread of eugenic ideas in China.

The control of the "quality" of births is thought in China to be as
important as the control of "quantity": both have regularly been
heralded as the twin goals in the regulation of reproduction since
Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978. The new eugenics law, which came
into effect in June 1995, is not a random addition to the arsenal of
regulations aimed at the control of the population's fertility, but an
intrinsic part of population policies which has been in the making for
over a decade.

The term "eugenics", it should be emphasized from the outset, is not
without its particular problems: there is generally no consensus as to
what precisely constitutes "eugenics" or what characterizes its
relation to contemporary genetics. Conflicting definitions of the term
often reflect broader political positions, and its use in Europe
generally expresses fears about direct government programmes. In
China, the term used since the 1920s literally translates as "science
for superior birth". In contrast to the West, China made no attempt
after the Second World War to distinguish between "eugenics", a
concept identified with Nazi policies, and "genetic counselling",
meant to make medical information about reproductive health accessible
to responsible individuals. A closer look at the recent legislation
reveals both positive efforts to improve the accessibility of genetic
counselling and worrying signs of official efforts to curb individual
rights in the name of a genetic imperative.

The 1995 law, renamed "Maternal and Infant Law" after protests against
a preliminary draft entitled "Eugenics Law", supports the systematic
"implementation of premarital medical checkups" in order to detect
whether one of the couple suffers from "serious hereditary", ven-ereal
or reproductive disorders as well as "relevant mental disorders" or
"legal contagious diseases"; it suggests that those "deemed unsuitable
for reproduction" should become celibate, or undergo sterilization or
abortion in order to prevent "inferior births". The law explicitly
points to voluntary sterilization and individual choice; the question
is what importance will be given to "individual choice" in a regime
that has never hesitated to imprison citizens who disagree with
official policy, or to use military force to suppress dissent, as it
demonstrated in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.

In particular, one wonders what weight will be given to the
"individual choice" of people defined as "mentally ill" and others
deemed "unfit" by medical authorities and local cadres, and how these
"choices" could be respected without the necessary legal framework. It
is easy to slip from voluntary sterilization to compulsion, and one
fundamental difference between genetic counselling and eugenics is
precisely that the former informs families of potential risks; whereas
the latter instructs them whether or not to bear children. The
coercive implementation of birth-control programmes so far indicates
that eugenic legislation will be carried out without any respect for
couples' wishes.

The second most troublesome aspect of Chinese eugenic legislation is
that the right to reproduce, or even the right to exist, is determined
by ill-defined and misguided ideas about "genetic fitness". There is a
lack of a clear definition of what constitutes or should be
considered, for instance, a "severe" handicap. Down's syndrome and
hydrocephalia are often given as examples of "severe inherited
diseases", but so are haemophilia, mucopolysaccharidosis or even
diabetes; it has been suggested that foetuses which are found to be
affected by any of these disorders by a DNA test after the first four
months of pregnancy should be "instantly aborted".

No definition is provided for the terms "mental retardation" and
"mental illness", often referred to in official statements and eugenic
legislation. There is a wide range of mental disabilities, many of
which are only partially understood, and few forms of mental illness
have been clearly demonstrated to have a genetic cause, yet political
and medical authorities do not hesitate to prescribe sterilization for
those judged to be "retarded".

In 1988, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress of
Gansu Province passed the country's first law prohibiting mentally
retarded people from having children. The law was directed at people
whose condition was either inherited or a consequence of marriage
between close relatives, and it decreed that they would not be allowed
to marry until they had undergone sterilization surgery. Those who
were married before the promulgation of the law would also be
sterilized, and pregnant women diagnosed as suffering from mental
retardation were required to have their pregnancies terminated. It
remains to be established how many women have been forced to undergo
sterilization or forced abortion in Gansu following this provincial
law, but the crucial point is that the government has only recently
started to recognize that a lack of iodine, rather than "defective"
genes, is at the root of many mental-health problems in the
countryside. This example indicates the human cost of the confusions
which are frequently made in China between the dietary, environmental
and genetic factors of population health.

Such problems are compounded by a lack of discussion of the benign
nature or relatively easy therapeutic treatment of some of the
diseases that are represented as grave threats to social welfare. In
general, both medical literature and official legislation rarely focus
on specific cases in which the unique circumstances of individual
cases need to be taken into account. Discussions about the ethical
implications of eugenic laws, moreover, are hampered when such terms
as "ethical" and "human" are viewed with suspicion in a socialist
regime that dismisses such values as "bourgeois".

Even in those rare cases of a demonstrable one-to-one correspondence
between a gene and a defect, sterilization will not always reduce its
incidence in the population. If an undesirable genetic trait is
recessive or polygenic, sterilization is an entirely utopian measure,
in particular since a person with such a hereditary disability is more
often than not the offspring of normal parents. For example, to rid
the "gene pool" in Britain of the recessive form of PKU, a metabolic
disorder which can lead to mental deficiency, as Lionel Penrose
calculated over half a century ago, 1 per cent of the British
population would have to be sterilized. The absence of clear
definitions of health and ill-health in eugenic legislation in China
logically entails that every single individual's reproduction should
be controlled, since all human beings are the bearer of some sort of
"defective" gene.

This indicates that the reasons for promoting such legislation may
have more to do with politics than medicine, as it gives enormous
power to local cadres and medical experts, a suspicion confirmed by
the insertion of a clause in the 1995 law which notes that it is
sufficient for a doctor merely to "suspect" a pregnant woman of foetal
abnormality to recommend diagnostic tests and possibly the termination
of pregnancy. Eugenic measures, furthermore, are constantly justified
in the name of future generations. Abstractions like the "race",
"future generations" and the "gene pool" are raised above the rights
and needs of individuals and their families, just as claims about "the
state", "the revolution" or "the party" have been used in the past in
the political repression of population.

How are these eugenic policies initiated? In the case of birth-control
programmes, it has been suggested that hard-line policies generally
emerged from a small group of high functionaries, while relaxations
and accommodations were negotiated at local level by family-planning
personnel and by specialists in research institutes. Similarly, it
might be hypothesized that eugenic policies are resisted by the
population at large.

Li Peng, a high official who was also directly involved in the events
in Tiananmen Square, is certainly one of the most open and active
supporters of eugenics. ("Idiots breed idiots" is perhaps one of his
most notorious public statements.) Many of the officials behind the
promotion of eugenic legislation, in particular Peng Peiyun, head of
the State Family Planning Committee, Chen Muhua, Chairperson of a
Eugenics Symposium in 1989, and Chen Minzhang, the Minister of Public
Health, all have close ties with Li Peng, confirming the impression
that eugenic policies are supported by a small fraction of
conservative party officials. It would be wrong, however, to suggest
that these policies are being effectively opposed at grass-roots
level; there is ample evidence to suggest that eugenics is supported
by specialists and medical authorities throughout much of the country.

As in Nazi Germany, the eugenic ideas of senior bureaucrats have found
widespread support in research institutions and among population
specialists, many of whom have been put into powerful positions of
responsibility after decades of official ostracism before the reforms
initiated by Deng Xiaoping. It would be equally misleading to think
that research circles retain some independence from the government.
The close relationship between research institutions and government in
China is well known, while formal government control and informal
personal networks contribute to the integration of research with
government policy.

Eugenic legislation, furthermore, thrives on social prejudice, in
particular, folk models of inheritance which see disorders as running
in family lines. The one-child family policy has effectively prepared
the terrain for a better acceptance of eugenic legislation among large
sectors of the urban population; many families which are allowed to
have one child only are keen to avoid "defective" births themselves. A
prolific medical discourse has responded to the general public's
concern for healthy offspring, a virtuous child or even a genetically
improved line of descent.

Numerous pamphlets of scientific vulgarization thus dispense advice on
the art of engendering a prodigy child, suggesting that the eugenic
vision of the government is shared to a great extent by a population
which is anxious to avoid "inferior births".

The lack of any effort to establish guidelines on what constitutes a
"birth defect" is compounded by social prejudice, in particular the
cultural preference for a son; a female embryo might be considered a
defect in itself. Although the government has issued a ban on tests to
determine the sex of an embryo, it should not surprise us that the
number of abandoned female children with minor defects, such as a
harelip or a cleft palate both only require a minor surgical operation
to be corrected has soared over the past few years. Tens of thousands
of children are born with minor genetic illnesses every year, and many
are abandoned by their parents.

"Rabbit children", suffering from congenitally deformed mouths, and
"whitoes", as children with albinism are called, are seen to be a
burden on parents and on the state. Throw-away children, most of them
girls, end up and die in crowded welfare centres and orphanages. Some
lucky children are adopted by couples from Hong Kong, Singapore or
Europe, but the majority remain patients for life. Serious birth
defects are one of the most tragic and painful challenges any
individual family can face, and all possible ethical considerations
and medical options should be carefully considered and openly debated
in order to reach some sort of consensus. The present eugenic
legislation does not reflect any consensus; it is imposed by those who
politically benefit from it.

The argument that concern with human rights is a typically eurocentric
activity, and that people in China find authoritarian policies
relatively more tolerable, disregards the great diversity of cultural
traditions in China. Some supporters of authoritarian approaches
underline the sense of discipline which is thought to be inherent to
"Confucian traditions". Even if one could find evidence for this in
China's vast cultural heritage, it is not clear how that would compare
to other cultures which have similarly emphasized the need for
self-discipline, from Saint Augustine to the Protestant work ethic.
Reproductive freedom is not the prerogative of a few privileged
cultures, but an inalienable part of the individual rights which the
government in China has consistently suppressed ever since it came to
power in 1949.

Coercive methods are only possible in non-democratic states, and the
sterilization programmes used in India during the "emergency period"
in the 1970s were over-whelmingly rejected when general elections were
finally held. In China, too, the socialist regime knows that its
policies would be directly attacked if democratic elections and legal
freedom existed.

Eugenics legislation is not only an important part of the population
policies which have been actively pursued during the Deng Xiaoping
era; it constitutes a fundamental aspect of a more general attempt to
regulate the sexuality of each and every individual. Instead of
distinguishing between individual sexual preferences, lines have been
drawn between procreative and nonprocreative acts that are
administered in the name of a higher entity, be it "the nation", "the
state", or "future generations".

Non-procreative forms of sexuality in particular pre-marital and
extra-marital sex are not recognized as legitimate expressions of
individual desire, but as psychologically disturbed and socially
deviant acts that should be suppressed in the interest of the nation.
Medical technologies have been mobilized in the official campaign
against undisciplined sexuality in young people. It has been reported
that extreme methods of "scientific control" have actually been used,
including psychological and medical treatment for young people who are
thought to suffer from "sexual hyperfunction" and "sexual addiction"
(one article has recommended the regulation of the level of sex
hormones for dangerous sex criminals and for sexually active young

The medical consequences of the government's efforts to restrict
sexuality to a marital context have a direct impact on the
population's health. To an even greater degree than in the West, for
instance, HIV/AIDS is represented as a disease caused by sexual
promiscuity instead of a virus which can potentially be contracted by
every sexually active person. Until last month, unambiguous and clear
statements about the protective value of condoms could not be found,
and the human cost of the systematic campaign of misinformation
carried out by medical institutions and government officials in China
still remains to be estimated. Ignorance is already the main reason
for the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in China. The
regulation of sexuality in the name of the nation, rather than the
control of disease for the sake of individual health, has thus been
the ultimate objective of legal sanctions, social controls and medical
norms in China ever since Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978.

Racial nationalism has also been on the increase in the post-Tiananmen
era, from the representation of early hominids in China as the
"ancestors" of the "yellow race" in palaeo-anthropology to the
identification of the Han as the descendants of the Yellow Emperor in
serological studies. A few publications in demography have even made
claims about the "biological fitness" of the nation and herald the
next century as an era to be dominated by "biological competition"
between the "white race" and the "yellow race". The mastery of
reproductive technologies and genetic engineering is seen to be
crucial in the future battle of the genes, and the government has
given much support to medical research in human genetics.

A research team was even set up in November 1993 to isolate the
quintessentially "Chinese genes" of the genetic code of human DNA. All
aspects related to reproductive health, in other words, are linked to
a nationalist agenda in which individuals are seen to be relatively
insignificant elements of a greater collectivity.

Whether the regulation of sexuality has replaced ideological control
as the main tool of repression in the People's Republic is an
important question which is open to debate. It is beyond question,
however, that the signs of a drift towards an authoritarian form of
government guided by biological imperatives have been accumulating in
China for some time, and anybody with a serious interest in that
country and its people should consider the implications of that drift

Frank Dikoetter's book, Sex, Culture and Modernity in China: Medical
science and the construction of sexual liberties in the early
republican period, will be reviewed in a future issue of the TLS.

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