Eugenics in New Zealand

Hilary Stace

Eugenics is a pseudo-science concerned with improving the quality of the human race. It underpins the discrimination of those who are disabled or culturally or ethnically different by those who consider themselves to be morally and physically superior. Eugenists borrow the language and concepts of science, particularly evolutionary theory of ‘survival of the fittest’, to legitimise this discrimination. The flawed hypothesis underpinning eugenics is that some individuals, families and population groups are tainted with hereditary physical and intellectual defects causing consequent moral deficiency, making them less ‘fit’ than others.

Eugenic attitudes and public policy were particularly significant in the early decades of the twentieth century in many countries, including New Zealand. A common perception in Britain and much of the ‘western’ world at the beginning of the twentieth century was that evolutionary theory of 'survival of the fittest' had not caused society to rid itself of problems related to crime and poverty. Being part of the British Empire, it was not surprising that the eugenic debate here was influenced by the British one.

In the nineteenth century many migrants left Britain and Europe for a better life in New Zealand. Although infectious illness and accidents were common, disability was unwelcome as it conflicted with the ideals of a new society. Disability support was left to the benevolence of families or groups providing charitable aid. The immigration acts that restricted people from China (an ‘unfit race’) also banned ‘cripples, idiots, lunatics, infirm, blind, deaf and dumb’. The 1882 Imbecile Passengers Act required a bond from the person in charge of the ship before one of these ‘undesirables’ was discharged, and the 1899 Immigration Restriction Act went further banning the idiot, the insane and the contagious.

By the beginning of the 20th century the middle class white birth rate was dropping in New Zealand. The blossoming ‘scientific’ justification of eugenics was taken up by both white liberals and conservatives concerned about consequent fears of losing their moral supremacy. In 1903, W. A. Chapple, a Liberal MP in New Zealand and later in Britain, published an influential booklet, The fertility of the unfit. Sterilisation of the wives of ‘degenerate’ men was his preferred option for reducing the numbers of ‘the unfit’. His pamphlet was welcomed by many prominent men and women. Eugenics became a political cause.Negative’ eugenists sought to limit fertility while ‘positive’ eugenists supported interventionist pro-natalist policies to increase population ‘fitness’.

The 'unfit' encompassed a whole range of 'other' including the following groups described in the language of the time: alcoholics, imbeciles, illegitimate children (and their mothers), prostitutes, criminals, the feeble-minded, lunatics, epileptics, deaf-mutes, the unemployable, the tubercular, the immoral (e.g. homosexuals), anyone from another race, those with incurable diseases such as Syphilis or tuberculosis, and even ‘mouth-breathers'. What they had in common was that they were all 'other' and were apparently breeding faster than the eugenists. Eugenists constructed a monster that gobbled up taxes, and provided images of the 'unfit' for people to measure themselves against.

French-born religious sister Suzanne Aubert had a personal experience of disability and was one of the few to speak out against eugenics in New Zealand. She founded her Home for Incurables in Wanganui in 1899 and, in 1907, opened her first Home of Compassion for all ‘needy’ or disabled adults and children in Wellington.

The 1907 founding of the Plunket Society with its slogan to 'help the mothers and save the babies’ both reflected and propagated eugenic fears about the ‘unfit’. 'The destiny of the race is in the hands of the mothers', wrote founder Truby King. He believed the body was a closed system with a limited amount of energy. The education of girls, in anything other than domestic skills, used up their energy and could make them unable to breed or breastfeed. From his observations of patients as Superintendent of Seacliff Asylum near Dunedin he believed mental degeneration was caused by poor mothering. If only women could be taught the 'science' of mothering the racial decline of the Empire could be arrested. Instead they would breed fit soldiers for the Empire. The less than perfect health of many soldiers enlisting in the First World War increased the Society’s influence.

The Plunket Society popularised the prescriptive ideology of a regime designed to build 'character'. It involved four hourly breast feeding (but not at night), toilet training from two weeks of age, fresh air, rest and no 'spoiling' as playing with or cuddling the child could weaken 'his' character.

But the Plunket Society was just one of many reactions by New Zealand society to those whose difference threatened the majority. Fear of the unfit and wishes to contain the disabled and undesirable had already led to New Zealand’s first public ‘lunatic’ asylum in Karori in 1854. A larger one on the hills above the town of Porirua opened in 1887 and by 1896 its site covered 100 acres. Typically for the time, the Porirua asylum mixed several categories of ‘other’: those with mental health issues, intellectual impairment, alcoholics, elderly and homeless people. For decades, these ‘inmates’ provided large captive communities for doctors and specialists to practice theories and interventions.

Some groups, such as those with vision and hearing impairments, were seen as ‘habilitable’, meaning they had potential as worker citizens if they could be taught to speak or otherwise function in the ‘fit’ world. Hence the establishment of residential schools which separated those with potential from their suspect families.

But certain types of intellectual impairment continued to be linked with ‘immorality’. Girls’ and boys’ homes and farm schools were founded mainly to keep the genders apart and prevent criminality, deviant behaviour and, above all, reproduction. The 1911 Mental Defectives Act carefully classified groups of ‘other’ into a hierarchy of idiots, imbeciles and feeble-minded. Special schools and special classes were provided for those deemed educable. The school medical service was founded to identify ‘defective’ children so they could be sent to the appropriate institutions and the 1914 Education Act made it obligatory for parents, teachers and police to report ‘mentally defective’ children. A residential school for ‘feeble-minded’ girls, Salisbury, was opened in Richmond, near Nelson in 1916.

The new science of IQ testing was enthusiastically embraced by the authorities when it became available. Labels such as high functioning, low functioning and mental age all added to the taxonomy and helped to classify and assign those so assessed.

In the 1920s the government consulted the public in two separate inquiries. A Committee of Inquiry into Venereal Disease reported in 1922 and the Committee of Inquiry into Mental Defectives and Sexual Offenders reported in 1925. The first inquiry concerned the role of 'feebleminded' women in infecting men and causing debauchery and corruption. The second considered 'mental defect' and its link with immorality, as well as prevention and treatment. Segregation, sterilisation, castration, and marriage certificates were remedies suggested for the perceived problems.

A short-lived Eugenics Board was established in 1928 to keep a register of 'mentally defective persons'. Theodore Gray was Acting Inspector General of Health and the Board was under his control. A member of the public wrote a ‘Mother’s Lament’ expressing concern at the proposed travelling clinics which would examine and classify ‘mentally defective' children

"Oh Mother, save me from Dr. Gray

'Cause teacher says he's coming to-day

And if I'm stupid he'll take me away. Oh, Mummie save me from Dr. Gray!"

"I cannot save you, my little child,"

His mummie said and her eyes were wild.

"You belong to the State, you're no more my child!

But Oh, my darling, don't stupid be

Or he'll say we've tainted heredity,

And must be eradicated - you and me!"

There was some discomfort in the community over the Inquiry's recommendations. Most of the more extreme suggestions, such as sterilisation of, and banning marriage with, the 'mentally defective' were dropped from the Mental Defectives Bill of 1928, much to the anger of those like Nina Barrer of the Women's Division of the Farmers' Union. Barrer was an enthusiastic eugenist, using stock breeding metaphors for the perceived problems. She published a pamphlet in 1933, The problem of mental deficiency in New Zealand, where it is written: 'There is increasing in this Dominion a grave national danger that, from the material standpoint alone, is costing the country hundreds of thousands of pounds, while, from the racial or biological standpoint, it is menacing the purity of our national stock. The present depression and its consequent problem of unemployment have been the means of awakening more people to the fact of the increasing unemployable, and the alarming rate of multiplication of the mentally deficient'.

Support for eugenic policies was widespread globally so it was not surprising that in 1939 when a German father asked the state authorities to kill his disabled baby the request was granted. That was the start of the Nazi euthanasia policies. The Nazi doctors killed more disabled children, then the policy spread to other groups which threatened ‘racial hygiene’, including Jewish people. It is estimated that over 200,000 disabled people were experimented on or killed in what is known as the ‘silent holocaust’.

Following the Second World War and the establishment of the welfare state in New Zealand, overt support for eugenic public policy lessened. But many people, including children and adults with an intellectual disability (ID), remained a target of eugenic public policies with a network of state institutions across the country. Busloads of children were delivered to these isolated communities and other adults and children arrived in curtained-off, locked train compartments. Families were advised to not reveal the existence of their sibling for fear of this ‘bad blood’ scaring off prospective spouses. The ‘inmates’ were thus often forgotten by family.

But eugenic assumptions remain today and can be heard anew in calls for the sterilisation of people with disabilities and beneficiaries, pre-birth screening for conditions such as Down Syndrome and in the development of genetic technology. Official discrimination against groups such as refugees can also be considered eugenic.

Perhaps it is time for reflection about why this flawed hypothesis continues to influence public policy.

Dr Hilary Stace is a disability researcher and Research Fellow at Victoria University. She is the author of Gene dreaming: New Zealanders and eugenics Wellington: Professional Historians’ Association of New Zealand/Aotearoa, 1998.