Sterilisation: it wasn’t just the Nazis

Recently the papers and talk shows have been abuzz about a woman in her thirties who has had thirteen babies, all of whom have been taken away from her — most of them at birth — and put up for adoption. Her early ones suffered severe neglect and some were born with disabilities. Neither she nor her partner work, and she is registered disabled. AN Wilson, in today’s Daily Mail, opines that she, and others like her, should be sterilised:

If we are realistic, however, we know what the lives of these children will be like. Deprived children of desperately inadequate parents, taken into care in infancy, have little chance of becoming useful or even capable members of society.

Every survey, every statistic, every social worker would reluctantly agree. Children born in these circumstances will provide the criminals and the no-hopers of tomorrow. If they are then allowed to have children, they will provide yet more problems for the future.

Allowed to have children? What is this? Am I suggesting that the State should interfere in this most sacred area and decree who should or should not have children?

To that I answer a quite unapologetic ‘yes’ - and I accept that many will find this unpalatable. In the case of women like Theresa Winters, the state - that is, you and I - have had to shoulder the cost of every one of the children she has produced. Children born in such circumstances cost the state, on average, four times more than it costs rich parents to educate their offspring at expensive private schools.

Naturally, the most hostile coverage of this woman’s situation is in the tabloids, with the Sun (or Scum, as I call it) labelling her the “baby machine” while the Mail alleged that she looked “gormless”. I looked at the picture they were referring to (the second one down in the AN Wilson article) and thought that was a very unfair description. She has a sunken face and an unhappy expression, what can you expect from a woman who has lost thirteen children and is facing having a third seized from her? She has a tasteful blue dress and a cardigan on, and looks well-kept as does her partner. I am not saying the social workers are wrong, but whatever happened that led to her children being taken away must have happened several years ago; after all, it takes a long time for a woman to produce 13 children.

In addition, the newspapers quote this woman’s sister, who said she should have been sterilised long ago and that she is keeping on having children out of spite, so that the state can take care of them. Well, this is the same state which has already seized 13 of her children, so you cannot really expect her to be gracious towards it. Besides which, how do we know that there is no family feud going on here? How do these newspapers know that the sister is speaking the truth?

There is something that disturbs me about all this talk of Nazis and sterilisation, however, which is that people are forgetting that it wasn’t just the Nazis. Hitler was an admirer of American eugenicists, and compulsory sterilisations of supposedly mentally retarded or “feeble-minded” people, particularly women, happened in the USA and Sweden and many other countries, although not the UK on any great scale. The most notorious incident involved a rape victim in Virginia who had been institutionalised after becoming pregnant; the judge said that “three generations of imbeciles are enough”, but this claim was shown to be rubbish by the daughter’s subsequent school grades.

The racism and class prejudice that was present in that case (Bell v Buck) is echoed here also. The victim’s family were said to “belong to the shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South”, and while nobody here has mentioned the word “chav”, surely that is on many of their readers (and indeed writers’) minds and lips. I get a real sense that people are enjoying laughing at those at the bottom — a Shameless or Little Britain type drama in real life. We should not let ourselves think that we are above perpetrating such injustices in the mistaken knowledge that we know best; after all, many people with physical disabilities can tell you of people who said they shouldn’t have children.

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