Jane Harris-Zsovan’s Weblog

A Professional Site About Jane’s Books, Articles and Ideas

Eugenics and the Firewall

with 4 comments

Here’s the national launch poster for the 17 November 2010 launch: GS_eugenics_rev poster

Eugenics and the Firewall will be published this fall. Writing it took me on anamazing journey through Alberta’s past and political culture. I got a chance to

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look at Albertan’s changing attitudes  toward the Sexual Sterilization Act.

The Province of Alberta’s handling of the eugenics issue during the 20th century is fascinating, and a cause for both hope and worry.  The saga shows us the belief systems underlying Alberta’s political culture. (And Albertans aren’t as right wing or as homogeneous as pundits claim. )

Hundreds of lives were ruined by the public’s blind trust in a theory, politicians’ adherence to ideology and expert recommendations, and the voters’  faith in the moral  rightness of  the provincial government. This fascinating saga has lessons for all Canadians of every political stripe.

Details about launch date to come.


4 Responses

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  1. Jane,
    I recently cataloged Eugenics and the Firewall for our medicaL library here in Alabama. I found it a really interesting book. There was one practical issue I thought I should ask you about. Currently, your “name heading,” the way libraries keep track of your identity and distinguish you from other authors, is set up as “Harris, Jane, 1960-.” But would you prefer that it be changed to Harris-Zsovan, Jane, 1960-“? I think Harris, Jane, 1960- should be adequate for distinguishing you from other authors, but if you’d like it changed to Harris-Zsovan, I can make that change. A form with Harris alone would remain on our “authority record” for you so people will know that your earlier works are by the same person.

    I thought the book was very interesting. As an American, I’ve wanted to know for quite awhile what “social credit” was. After cataloging your book, I also looked at some of the Wikipedia entries on Social Credit. As you say, it appears pretty risky to interpret Canadian politics too much on an American model.

    I had one other question that I want to say reflects only my own perceptions, and not those of others at my library. It seemed like one of your aims in writing the book was to counteract the sort of narrative we’ve heard a great deal of, which claims that the rise of inhumane things like eugenics in the 20th century was due to the weakening of Christianity in Western culture. As if belief in Christianity would automatically keep someone from doing such things. You show, on the contrary, that the Social Credit movement in Alberta was started by Christians, yet managed to espouse eugenics. The book seems to suggest that the real generalization is about power: if people have power, they can use it inhumanely, whatever their belief system may be. Am I right to interpret the book that way?

    Ted Gemberling

    January 8, 2011 at 3:26 am

  2. March. 15. 2012.
    Ted, I think it’s important not to judge an era by today’s knowledge and standards. I too enjoyed Zsovan’s book and it cleared up many details about eugenic sterilization and brought the term “eugenics” into the Canadian public consciousness. However, Canadian eugenic movement was closely linked to the concept and social fear of “feeble-mindedness”, and the motive of the medical community and psychiatry was to “save” the Canadian race from what they genuimely saw as degenerative influences (that were also costly to the tax payers). After all, we dont stir a hair today at amniocentesis tests for Down’s syndrome fetuses and then the abortion (destruction) mof those living fetuses for our own convenience, call it what you may, it’s a form of eugenics that the eugenicists of the Strilization Acts of Alberta and B.C.would greatly applaud.) I’m not exonerating them, but one has to understand the social milieu in the early 1900s when eugenics began to take hold – no cure for venereal diseases, no welfare state, no pensions, no social net to help and save the poor, and little inderstanding of the nature of mental retardation and genetics. Thus the “feeble-minded” had no rights. We also have to consider the role of the parents and the Children’s Aid Societies in the “putting away” of handicapped or “feeble-minded” children into these institutions, and the consent of parents to the sterilizations. (I have a copy of a sterilization consent form to be “signed by the parents”. ) Unlike the United States, where institutionalization was compulsory, institutionalization of one’s child – often for life – was always purely VOLUNTARY by the parents in Canada. Thelma Wheatley, author of: And Neither Have I Wings To Fly: Labelled and Locked Up In Canada’s Oldest Institution. Inanna Publications, York University, June 2012.

    Thelma Wheatley

    March 15, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    • Thelma, Did you really read my book? In Alberta, sterilization was compulsory for many classes of individuals, thanks to amendments to the Sexual Sterilization Act passed by the Social Credit dominated legislature of William Aberhart and upheld by Ernest Manning’s regime. Also, Alberta did have a rather extensive public health program, decades before Saskatchewan elected Tommy Douglas, that paid for many mental health treatment (even free clinics), maternity and child health, TB and polio care. Families did not have the right to overrule the Eugenics Board. Forced sterilization was seen as means to cut costs of housing the mentally ill and paying to care for their offspring. (It still remains a province that pays or all cancer medication, unlike Ontario.)

      The second part of my book deals with the legacy of eugenics in Canada. The push to genetic testing, abortion, and the debates about euthanasia are rooted in eugenic thinking.


      March 15, 2012 at 3:43 pm

  3. Thelma and Jane:
    Both of you have published compassionate books on the plight of people with disabilities in the 20th century. As Thelma says, you have a lot in common. I agree with Thelma that we should try to understand the context of the early 20th century when these things were considered acceptable. It seems it’s only the Holocaust and Nazi “eugenics” that forced us to rethink those things.

    Actually, a big part of why I am “pro-choice” on abortion is that I don’t necessarily think carrying a child to term is always the most compassionate thing. Life as a person with a severe disability is really tough. I remember some years ago, when I lived in Kansas, the Special Olympics held games in our community. My Episcopal priest talked about how inspiring the Special Olympics are. Certainly they can be. It’s great to cheer for people as they attempt to stretch their potential as far as they can. But then I ran into a brief article on the back pages of the local newspaper that said a couple people who came for the games had attempted suicide. I don’t know any more details about the case, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the pain of living with a disability played a part in that. I knew a man with a disability who thought of suicide.

    I appreciate what Thelma said about taking care of her child while recognizing that it might be hard for someone else to do the same thing. I assume her child is getting the support he needs.

    I recently had a thought about sterilization. What if it was strictly a matter of consent, but something we urged people to consider? I think part of what makes it so hard is that we as a society romanticize reproduction. We present so many romantic images of couples getting together and having children, when in reality, it’s hell a lot of the time. It can be a curse to have a family to take care of, and especially humiliating for someone who’s unable to do it well for financial or other reasons. It’s hard to be a good parent, and way too easy to get pregnant. What if we made it part of our educational curriculum to show young people both the ups and downs of reproduction. At some point, a counselor might meet with a young person and say something like, “we think it might be a good idea for you to consider sterilization.”

    I realize that may be an outlandish idea. Of course it would get huge resistance from religious groups that think sex is inseparable from reproduction. “Be fruitful and multiply.” But it seems the evil in sterilization comes mostly from its secretiveness. You are robbing the individual of a chance to make an informed choice for him/herself.

    I know this may show my biases, but what really jumped out to me from Jane’s book is that religion didn’t prevent involuntary sterilization. I have read a number of religious thinkers who said it couldn’t happen in a society with strong religious values. There’s been a lot of that kind of literature in the last 60 years. Nazism is considered one of the great evils of the modern world, and lots of people want to say it was caused by the neglect of ideas like their own. Ayn Rand, for example, said Nazism wouldn’t have happened if people held her atheistic views. It came from “mysticism,” she claimed. Let’s face it, it happened, and it’s hard to say what might have prevented it.

    Thanks again for the discussion.

    Ted Gemberling

    March 16, 2012 at 3:24 am

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