The demons within: On liberal opposition to Nazism in the face of popular eugenics

My sister had to run away to the jungle. There are a lot of things we have experienced. Terror from the Indonesian government itself – killing people in a subtle way. They give injections to pregnant women – but it is not the right medicine… it kills the baby.

Esther Tapnesa on living under the U.S.-backed occupation of West Papua, in the 2012 film Journey to Freedom


Since “Nazi” is the accusation of the moment, it could be seen as surprising that eugenics is not a topic of the moment. Medical experimentation into the promotion and prevention of fertility was a hallmark of the Nazi era, so widespread concern about Nazism ought to lead to critical examination of the nature and history of twenty-first century eugenics. This is especially so since the pharmaceutical industry is now the most profitable on earth: bigger than oil, gas and chemicals combined.

The history of eugenics is frequently traced to the turn of the twentieth century and the writings of British scientist Sir Francis Galton, who promoted early intermarriage among select groups and the restriction of welfare to the “inferior”. The world’s first eugenics-based compulsory sterilisation law was passed in Indiana in 1907, and as New Zealand author Helen Smyth points out in Rocking the Cradle, eugenics

held sway until Hitler’s experiments in World War II brought the theory into international disrepute. New Zealand was a participant in the international eugenic debate, which tended to encompass discussion of contraception and the falling birth rate.

A key feature of British colonial eugenics included the promotion of ideals of white motherhood and white femininity summed up in the idea that “in the womb of British womanhood lies the Empire’s progress and strength”, as claimed by one New Zealand commentator. Eugenics of course is racism that relies on the control of women’s reproduction: so it will promote fertility among white women with status and restrict abortion rights while sterilising and experimenting on poor women of colour. The essentialism of idealised motherhood also breeds homophobia: anti-lesbianism and ideas of male homosexuals as “women” trapped in male bodies requiring castration.

Since eugenics relies on control over women’s reproduction, the medieval witchcraze – long before Galton’s time of course – is one of the most important episodes in its history. As Andrea Dworkin writes in Woman Hating, many women burned as witches in the Middle Ages were healers and midwives who also offended the church by performing abortions. The massacre of these women allowed men to take control of women’s reproduction and reproductive health, and establish gynecology as a male-dominated medical profession. “Gynecology was slow to rise,” writes Mary Daly in Gyn/Ecology.

Man-midwives of the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were under fire from woman midwives, such as Elizabeth Nihell, who described their instruments as “weapons of death”. Nevertheless, the nineteenth century saw the erection of gynecology over women’s dead bodies.

In the meantime, the colonisation of America had begun, and as the Native American population living north of Mexico was reduced from ten million to less than one, Dworkin writes that the “first slaves” brought to the United States “were women – white women.”

Women were imported into the colonies to breed. Just as a man bought land so that he could grow food, he bought a wife so that he could grow sons.

A man owned his wife and all that she produced. Her crop came from her womb, and this crop was harvested year after year until she died.

Dworkin explains that it was then “no contradiction or moral agony to begin to buy black slaves”. Black feminist writers Angela Davis’ Women, Race and Class and Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body discuss the impacts of race-based slavery on women. Davis’ writes how white men saw Black women as “breeders”, while Roberts adds that “Racism created for white slaveowners the possibility of unrestrained reproductive control.” J. Marion Sims, “the Father of Modern Gynecology,” used enslaved African-American women to conduct surgical experiments without anaesthetic.


As stated, eugenics as it is currently understood gained momentum at the turn of the twentieth century. By 1930s Germany, Nazi doctors were carrying out experiments in concentration camps: Carl Clauberg worked with a chemist from a pharmaceutical company to experiment with sterilisation and fertility on hundreds of women; Josef Mengele experimented on twins to discover whether multiple births could be engineered. Himmler was in charge of eradicating homosexuality through “cure” or “euthanasia”; Kurt Warnekos sterilised homosexual men, and also performed sex reassignment surgery on Einar Wegener, or “Lile Elbe”. This was not the only case of experimental sex reassignment in the Nazi era, and it is significant that Warnekos was not held accountable during the Nuremberg trials.

By the 1950s and 60s, writes Judith Richter in Vaccination Against Pregnancy, there was another “rise and endorsement of population control ideology among certain interest groups”. This was a decisive factor in “turning contraceptive development from an endeavour that medical scientists shied away from into a socially acceptable, even desirable, one.” One of these interest groups was the United States’ Population Council, established in in 1952 by John D. Rockefeller and Frederick Osborn. In Killing the Black Body, Roberts identifies Osborn as one of America’s key eugenics strategists and a long-time officer of the American Eugenics Society.

The Population Council is sponsored by corporate foundations and has remained a primary instigator of contraceptive research and testing. It is responsible for testing of the Pill, intrauterine devices (IUDs), Norplant, and immuno-contraceptives. Women’s safety, self-determination and protection from sexually transmitted diseases take a backseat in its research. Eka Esu-Williams, an African immunologist, has pointed out how the immuno-contraceptives being tested today are likely to contribute to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in Africa including AIDS. For those developing contraceptive technology, preventing the spread of illness in the Third World is not a priority.

Throughout the twentieth century, women living within a militarised Central and South America were frequently used as a testing subjects for reproductive technologies. The Pill was initially tested on women in Puerto Rico, and in the mid 1980s, female sterilisation was the most widely used contraceptive method in Brazil, used by 44% of all women. In her 1987 book Don’t Be Afraid Gringo, Elvia Alvarado relays the way Honduran women have been used for gynecological experimentation:

I don’t like my daughters using that birth control, because of all the problems it causes. Those pills do a lot of harm to women here. Maybe they don’t affect the gringas so much… But… Honduran women, many of them get sick.

The worst thing we get is cancer. Here in my village six women died recently from vaginal cancer. Before we never had that kind of sickness… But now lots of my friends are dying from it. Some were using pills, others were using IUDs. My sister’s in the hospital right now dying of cancer in the uterus.

Norplant, a contraceptive that releases progestin through six matchstick-sized silicone implants in the upper arm, was originally developed by the Population Council as a tool of population control in Third World Countries. “The scientists designed the contraceptive,” writes Roberts, “specifically for distribution to poor, uneducated women of color.” This was done with the help of nearly $15 million in U.S. foreign aid.

In Killing the Black Body, Roberts assesses countless cases of black mothers being ordered to use Norplant as an alternative to imprisonment while in court for drug-related offences. Norplant was tested in Bangladesh, and Brazillian feminists ran Norplant trials out of the country in 1986. In Peru, the capsules were issued to women through Norplant-or-sterilisation ultimatums; Indonesia (which has dispensed two-thirds of the world’s supply of Norplant) made Norplant use a requirement for women’s employment in some cases. In many jurisdictions where Norplant has been promoted, doctors were unequipped or unwilling to remove implanted capsules.

Dramatic body weight changes and heavy bleeding are two of the most commonly reported side effects of both Norplant and its successor, Depo-Provera. Depo-Provera injects progestin in an intense concentration, rather than gradually, and was initially manufactured by pharmaceutical company Upjohn.

In a 1982 issue of Broadsheet, New Zealand feminist Phillida Bunkle called Depo-Provera the “new eugenics”. The drug was not approved for use as a contraceptive in the United States until 1992, but was still exported to Third World women and prescribed to both African American and Native American women long before then. New Zealand was an early adopter, and by 1982, 25% of Maori women of fertile age had been given the drug. Bunkle points out that it was

given to Maoris twice as often as Pakeha. Depo is not accepted as a contraceptive in Australia, but is given to Aboriginal women; it is stringently limited in Britain but prescribed extensively to West Indians; it is approved for use on black but not white women in South Africa.

Testing was also carried In France, where Depo-Provera was used by 20 percent of sub-Saharan immigrant women compared to 4 percent of French-born women. Depo-Provera was trialled extensively in Thailand, as well as in the Pacific, for instance in the Marshall islands (also the site of extensive nuclear testing). Rongelap islander Renam Anjain tells Zohl dé Ishtar in Daughters of the Pacific, that “I have had an injection [depo provera], but it made me really sick. Another woman has had an injection too, and when she wanted to have a baby, she couldn’t.”

Alongside Norplant and Depo-Provera testing and sterilisation, another particularly stark illustration of contemporary eugenics comes in the form of the global surrogacy trade. The documentary Google Baby shows how women are currently forced to tolerate life treated as “incubators” in surrogacy clinics in India, often giving birth to white babies through the use of both egg and sperm donors. Egg donors are usually white women chosen for genetic desirability and given drugs to induce superovulation. Meanwhile, the production-line treatment of women who give birth to babies in surrogacy clinics, while not seen as mothers of children at all, is spine chilling.

Another particularly stark illustration of eugenics principles in action comes in the form of the late nineteenth century British interest in developing prosthetic or mechanical “wombs” from wood and glass. These trial inventions, called “artificial mothers” or “child hatcheries”, were attempts to challenge the indispensability of women’s bodies, and demonstrate the extent of control over reproduction that is sought through eugenics.

This historic interest in “artificial mothers” finds a very clear parallel in yet another form of contemporary eugenics: transgenderism. A 2018 Turkish study wonders whether transgender-identified women could be used as uterus donors for transgender-identified men who seek a female reproductive anatomy. Many of these women, whose wombs are sought after, will be lesbian – up to 80% of young people who are transitioned are homosexual. The essentialist ideals of womanhood, reproductive and sterilising experimentation on women, and homophobic conversion therapy implicit in transgenderism all indicate that it is contemporary eugenics. As Raymond writes in The Transsexual Empire

A not-so-incidental by-product of this particular medical theodicy is the enlargement of medical knowledge about manipulating organs of the body which specifically function to define biological sex. This, of course, works to the ultimate benefit of the sadistic side of the theodicy, enabling medical research and technology to acquire a specialised body of scientific knowledge on the manipulation of human sexuality that probably could not be acquired by any other accepted medical procedure.

Liberal New Zealand seeks to lead the way in normalising transgenderism, for instance through pushing law changes that allow sex markers to be changed on birth certificates through a simple, one-step process. Champions of such changes take pride in New Zealand’s history as global “pioneers” – but our early adoption of, for instance, neoliberal economic policy and Depo-Provera require that we think more critically about what our guinea pig status can really mean, for those within and outside New Zealand.

When considering the global impacts of pioneering transgenderism, it needs to be understood that the experimentation relied on for and promoted by transgenderism is racist. Recent history of global reproductive experimentation shows us this, but a recent Givealittle campaign run by New Zealand promoters of transgenderism does too. The campaign raised money to promote breast binding in Africa, Latin America and Central Asia, without considering how this Western practice will be absorbed in those contexts. In Iran, for instance, transgenderism is used by doctors as effectively mandatory conversion therapy to make homosexuals appear to be heterosexual. As a result, Iran has between 15,000 and 20,000 transsexuals according to official statistics – or as many as 150,000 by unofficial estimates. In Afghanistan, the pressure on mothers to give birth to boys rather than girls has lead to the practice of bacha posh – girls being raised as boys. To avoid being forced back into female subservience at puberty, some Afghan girls investigate trips to Iran.

Given the status of women around the world and the history of Western medical experimentation on women of colour globally, it is not hard to see how women in Africa, Latin America, Central Asia and beyond might be used as experimental fodder in this latest reproductive experiment that New Zealand seeks to champion. Locally, too, there is a sizeable push to conflate Western transgenderism with indigenous concepts relating to gender and sexual orientation such as Māori takatāpui and Samoan fa’afafine. This conflation is appropriative, and will lead to increasing prescriptions of puberty blockers to increasing numbers of Pacific young people. Puberty blockers are known to lock children on a path to cross-sex hormones, and this course of treatment results in sterilisation 100% of the time.

It should be clear from this article that medical eugenics is an aspect of white supremacy that never went away, but continued to shape-shift throughout the twentieth century and under neoliberalism into something more and more global and insidious. Eugenics in its current manifestations require us to think critically about abstract and unreal ideals of femininity; escalated efforts by men to control women’s reproduction and reproductive anatomy; the promotion of suspicion toward lesbians; reproductive experimentation targeted at indigenous groups, and the vigorous punishment of dissent. All of these count as central (not exhaustive) features of eugenics programs.

In the power struggle being waged between liberals and conservatives in New Zealand today, it is liberals who often use the term “Nazi” to characterise and protest racist thinking. These accusations may be accurate, but the history of medical eugenics demands that liberals take a look at what their own ideologies have in common with Nazism to boot. All the evidence shows that transgenderism is a neoliberal eugenics movement with roots in the Nazi experimentations, the witchcraze, slave trade and colonisation, as well as twentieth century conversion therapy and population control. Its promotion relies on just as sedate a populace as the rise of Nazism did, so it is time we woke up.

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2 thoughts on “The demons within: On liberal opposition to Nazism in the face of popular eugenics”

  1. Truly excellent post. Thank you so much for this. Strange that the eugenicists don’t have any interest in sterilising the straight women and men who are creating homosexuals. This campaign is not only brutally inhumane, it’s idiotic. It has no basis in reality or how the world actually works. But that’s patriarchy for you.

  2. Mindblowing reading Renee! Such insight and background research! You have opened my eyes looking into so many layers of patriarchal engineering. Am going to wake up more women & lesbians around me, the movement of awake resisters is growing!

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