Dismantling Eugenics at UCL

BEATRICE TECHAWATANASUK discusses the UCL Eugenics Enquiry, one year on from the scandal hitting the headlines.

Dismantling the structures that uphold eugenics at UCL is a mammoth task, and it is no wonder UCL has decided to launch a full-scale Eugenics Inquiry to investigate the matter before taking any concrete action. To the unfamiliar,  eugenics is the controversial science which legitimizes racism by controlling the genetic breeding of populations, it is the basis of the holocaust and questionable health policies during colonial rule. In March 2019, I attended the Eugenics Inquiry Town Hall meeting, which illuminated the multi-faceted issue of eugenics, and the complexities that come with confronting it.

There is something disturbingly sardonic about how UCL markets themselves as ‘London’s Global University’, while retaining their affiliation with eugenics. I can recall the unsettling shock that came in my second year of university – it was January 2018 and UCL had been exposed for hosting the white supremacist London Conference on Intelligence for four years, organized and attended by alt-right racists and a previous advocate of child rape. This led me to unravel UCL’s lingering relationship with eugenics – our Galton Lecture Theatre is unwittingly a symbol of UCL’s endorsement of scientists like Francis Galton, the pioneer of the eugenics movement. One year later, after uproar from the diverse student body, faculty and press, UCL launches the Eugenics Inquiry.

image courtesy of UCL

Disentangling UCL from being gripped by eugenics is challenging because of the reality that eugenics lies on a spectrum. In a society where we censor offensive terms to attempt to resolve cultural tensions, it is a mistake for us to believe we can similarly disentangle eugenics by simply deleting the name of eugenicists and their contributions. Frankly, it is difficult to distinguish eugenics from its scientific and mathematical legacy. The study of genetics using the mathematical concepts of  regression and correlation were initially used by Galton to quantify intelligence, yet their utility today is undeniable. At the Town Hall meeting, a student mentioned that when studying virology databases from South Africa, these new cures are attributed to people with specific attributes. He lamented that although these cures are based on genetic associations, which stem from eugenics, that should not taint these ideas which are intended and have succeeded in helping society. Guilt by association is uncalled for – the fact that these scientific studies were originally rooted in genetics does not make it a remnant of scientific racism, the two can be distinguished. Yet, this example starkly contrasts another example regarding how the UK Biobank predominantly looks at genetic markers of white people, necessarily entailing that minority ethnicities are set to lose out on medical benefits of genetics research, such as the early identification of an individual’s risk of diabetes or schizophrenia. Veiled scientific racism at UCL (and of course greater society) needs to be identified readily, but it might be hard to do so at the outset of any study.

Knowing where to draw the line with eugenics is a task society has to reckon with as a whole. After all, there lies a thin line between eugenics and what we would call bad public health policies. Eugenics is not merely Nazism, it is also population control during the British Empire, and has evolved to large-scale voluntary contraception programs like the one in India in 1976. This issue has evolved with modern innovation in medicine and technology, highlighting how medical direction is crucial to whether it makes a positive impact on society.

We have to begin contemplating hard questions, such as whether we consider abortions of disabled children to be eugenics? Or whether a contraceptive program for people with hereditary diseases is justified? It is these sorts of questions that each of us has to grapple with, and the public should take responsibility upon themselves to shape our own public health policies.

image courtesy of Selbe

The key hurdle is the narrative that the healthcare industry perpetuates, that laymen are not equipped to answer such questions and should instead leave it to the experts. Our faith in the healthcare system has resulted in few checks and balances from the public domain, it has become a somewhat undemocratic industry despite the fact that its impact is far-reaching. That is not to say the healthcare industry should be subject to the whims of democracy, I am not suggesting that an anti-vaccination movement should lead to a revision in healthcare policy. I am merely suggesting increased accountability, and discussion of moral dilemmas regarding the healthcare industry amongst the public.

Another issue is that our answers to these controversial questions might differ wildly. But this is precisely why the public needs to be engaged all the more, tough questions and debate should be stirred by the public not solely by small groups of powerful individuals. We should aim to carefully consider such healthcare issues, such that we can shape healthcare policy to a satisfactory state. At least if this were the case, we would hopefully avoid having to retrospectively blame the scientific community for their immoral directions in healthcare.

Increasingly, though, we have become more comfortable with exposing the skeletons in our closet. Times change and so do too the standards that we wish our institutions to uphold. After the exposure of the London Conference on Intelligence, and its organizer James Thompson, UCL’s response seemed oddly muted. Eventually James Thompson was fired, but there was no public announcement. This reticence by UCL reflects their inconsistent morality. On one hand, UCL claims to be the first higher education institution in England to accept students of any race, class or religion. Yet on the other hand, they only confront Eugenics after public outrage. UCL, by framing itself as an institution founded on a moral authority of being inclusive, must be accountable to the history and reality of eugenics. Although the nature of dismantling Eugenics is complicated, we should acknowledge that the least we can do is eliminate  indisputably racist and discriminatory structures and attitudes which fuelled the eugenics movement in the first place. Firing neo-nazi academics like James Thompson was an obvious step to take, and the Eugenics Inquiry is also a further nod in the right movement. With the Eugenics Inquiry underway, UCL should capitalize on this to trail blaze against the acceptance of eugenics.

feature photo courtesy of Medical Heritage Library