By Gee Wyles (Midwife) & Adrian Chan Wyles (PhD)
Between 1933 and 1945, Adolf Hitler and National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) devised, designed and deployed an extensive, science-led eugenics programme (i.e. ‘life unworthy of life’) with the sole function of ridding Nazi Germany of its disabled population. A very well popularised anti-disabled propaganda offensive throughout the Nazi German media successfully linked loyalty to the Fatherland with the need to ‘put disabled people out of their misery’. It was stated that ‘responsible’ parents would put the well-being of the German State before the well-being of their defective off-spring, and willingly collaborate to a German State pogrom which involved the disabled child or adult being taken into medical custody, and quietly ‘put down’. It was said that the once burdened parents were now ‘free’ to live fulfilling and productive lives, and with their defective off-spring no longer living, the German State was being saved millions of marks per year in the pointless exercise of ‘keeping them alive’. As a keep-sake, each set of parents was sent a photograph of their child still living in the hospital, together with a letter from Adolf Hitler personally ‘thanking’ them for relieving the German State of this troublesome expense. The German State killed the disabled adults and children placed into its care through a mixture of neglect (i.e. starvation, malnutrition, dehydration and lack of clothing, bedding, shelter and medical care), gassing (usually in the back of a mobile gas chamber purposely designed in the back of a lorry), shooting and lethal injection. The question for the German State was how to devise the quickest, most efficient and cheapest method of dispatch. The thinking behind this was not only one of racial purity but was also rooted in economic concerns (as disabled people cost too much to keep alive and did not actively contribute toward the material enrichment of Nazi Germany).
Although this eugenics pogrom was scientifically-led, stories abound of disabled people being tortured, raped and beaten to death in the so-called ‘institutions’ tasked with their eradication. This was how Adolf Hitler dealt with the issue of ‘visible’ disability. The Nazi German regime was limited to targeting already born (and developed) disabled people, as its scientists did not yet possess the ability to assess the foetus or embryo in the womb and discern a ‘disabled’ person from an ‘abled’ person. Even the language is uncomfortable as a false dichotomy is already established between an assumed ‘normality’ and an equally assumed ‘abnormality’. If Nazi German scientists had possessed the relevant ability, then ALL pregnancies that deviated away from a false ‘normality’ would have been ended pre-birth, and certainly not allowed to run their full-term development (leading to birth). Women living within Nazi Germany would have been legally required to ‘submit’ to arbitrarily administered intra-uterine assessments. The point of this mentality would have been to eradicate ALL manifestations of obvious disability from the Nazi German population (and in Hitler’s view, ‘strengthen’ the German race).
Having been active in Disability Rights for many years, and spent hundreds of hours talking with and listening to people who possess many different disabilities, (as well as looking after people with severe cognitive and physical disabilities), one glaring philosophical error in Hitler’s thinking is that there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ person as opposed to an ‘abnormal’ person, and that there is no reason to assume that a disabled person (regardless of disability) is in anyway ‘abnormal’, or represents somekind of social or scientific disease which needs ‘curing’ through its eradication. Humanity exists on a scale of ability and non-ability – regardless of any disability. Short-sight is perhaps the greatest deviation from the established norm of ‘good’ or ‘perfect’ eyesight, but because science can correct this problem, generally speaking the average short-sighted person is not considered ‘disabled’. Conversely, an apparent ‘normal’ adult might possess such a limited common sense or initiative that a person confined to a wheelchair may well possess a greater intellectual capacity and out-perform the able-bodied person.
The problem is that even in modern Britain scans are offered to pregnant women as a means to identify and ‘terminate’ any foetuses or embryos found to contain some type of genetic variation judged to be ‘abnormal’ by the medical profession. This process is carried-out as a means to persuade (or ‘pressure’) pregnant women into pursuing a ‘termination’ because it is stated, the child would have a very low quality of life, and cost the parents and the State too much money to support (this is particularly emphasised if a particular illness is likely to cost a large amount of money to treat, etc). The scan (not offered everywhere in the UK, and more prevalent in the South than the North), is offered as a ‘fun’ thing to do at around 12 weeks (with the privatising NHS hospitals ‘charging’ for photographs of the scans). This is a data gathering exercise which is used to encourage the termination of foetuses and embryos pre-birth for economic reasons. I have seen the horror on the faces of disabled adults when this process has been discussed in a public forum. Society is saying to a particular demographic that a) they are not wanted, b) are considered ‘abnormal’, and c) cost to much to sustain! There are many millions of disabled people who are cognitively able, clever and intelligent, and they are fully aware of the implications of this kind of thinking. Furthermore, there are also many thousands of disabled people who are not cognitively able and possess no independent means of protecting themselves!
I do not subscribe to the anti-intellectual US debate of ‘pro-life Vs pro-choice’ – particularly as the US military has killed over 20 million people in the world since the end of WWII. I have no interest in the Christian right, or a puerile US concept of ‘science’. The Communist position is that this is a matter for the empowerment of women who are best placed to make informed decisions about their own bodies (free of the influence of patriarchy). I agree with this position, whilst recognising that the UK is not a Communist State and that women are still subject to the whims of patriarchy. Why are disabled people targeted in this manner? The point is that NOT ONLY are disabled foetuses and embryos targeted, but also any pregnancy viewed as ‘inappropriate’, ‘unnecessary’ or ‘unwanted’. Are women really deciding these issues free of the corrupting influence of patriarchy? I once heard a debate on BBC radio some years back of women taking legal action against the NHS due to the fact that they had been ‘forced’ into a termination by NHS staff – an experience which had subsequently ‘destroyed’ their psychological and physical well-being. They existed in a state of continuous grief for a lost child coupled with guilt for being complicit in the process.
These are issues which should be examined and debated outside the usual dichotomy that exists. Women should be gathering together to protest the attitude of the British (bourgeois) State toward disabled people and protesting male interference in the medical profession with regard to Obstetrics and Gynaecology. I am not opposed to science-led medical intervention providing economics and bigotry are removed from the process. This is a public examination of a ‘private’ issue, but of course, the British NHS is a publically funded organisation delivering socialised medicine. These issues are not unique to the UK but are prevalent in the US and across Europe. As a private matter, women should possess the absolute right to choose, but there are historical, moral, ethical and economic issues that need to be clarified, examined and evolved away from old modes of oppressive thinking. Of course, Adolf Hitler never invented the notion of social engineering through eugenics, and often claimed that all he was doing was copying the various anti-Native American Indian, anti-Black, anti-Asian, anti-Jewish and anti-poor eugenic pogroms already in existence within the United States (the Chinese migrant Gee Jon was the first human-being to be judiciously ‘gassed’ to death within the US in 1924).