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'Breeder’s licence' a path to poorer society

By Gregory Melleuish - posted Friday, 16 January 2015

There was a long history in the West since the end of the 19th century of a desire to sterilise what were described as the ''unfit''. It was part of a popular movement which was based on the idea of eugenics, or the use of science to ''improve the race''.

Of course eugenics was discredited by the lengths to which it was taken in Nazi Germany, which sought to exterminate all those who were deemed unfit. But it is forgotten that eugenics was originally a doctrine of the Left who believed in what might be described as a perversion of liberalism, the idea that ''progress'' would lead to the creation of ''better people''. It was popular in many Western countries, many of which practised sterilisation of the unfit in the first part of the 20th century.

Strangely enough eugenics was not simply a secular movement. There were many liberal Protestants who were avid eugenicists, such Samuel Angus in Australia. Movements to sterilise the unfit largely occurred in countries where Protestantism was dominant.


The problem with eugenics, both then and now, is that it presumes that the state is the best judge of who is fit to breed. The flip side of this desire to control the breeding of the lower orders was to ensure that educated women had children.

Playing with the idea that the state should determine who should, and should not, have children is a dangerous idea, even if, as Gary Johns suggests, the means to be used are contraception rather than sterilisation.

In fact, the whole idea that ''it is not a human right to raise a family at someone else's expense'', if applied would lead to the end of a whole range of measures designed to assist women who have children, ranging from maternity leave to subsidised childcare.

What is really meant is that women of a certain type should not have the right to raise a family at someone else's expense while those who are judged suitable should be supported by the state. The key factor dividing them into two groups is the receipt of government benefits.

But, one might ask, once the state has implemented that sort of rule what is to stop it declaring that other sorts of qualifications are required if one is to receive a ''breeder's licence''.

And why exactly would we, as Australians, want to do this?


The primary argument would seem to be that it will reduce the financial burden on the state by reducing the number of children. But surely there is more than this. Children produced by the ''wrong'' sort of women, we are told, are more likely to be unemployed, they have higher rates of mental illness, and to suffer alcoholism and drug dependence. They are not the sorts of people Australia really wants or needs.

It is almost as if we should cut out of the body politic those parts of it which are seen to be diseased and not worthy of belonging to it.

And shall we create a society which is more prosperous and full of a better class of person? I doubt it. What we will create is a more mean-spirited social order which places an even greater emphasis on utility and less on love. It cannot be emphasised too highly, that children have value in themselves, and are not just tools to be used in the cause of social engineering.

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This article was first published in The Australian.

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About the Author

Gregory Melleuish is associate professor of history and politics at University of Wollongong.

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