Paul-André Rosental

presents his new book Destins de l’eugénisme, published 2016

Paul-André Rosental is a full professor at Sciences Po and associated researcher at INED.

(interview conducted June 2016)

What were the aims of eugenicist policies and what results did they produce?

The initial aim of eugenics in the late nineteenth century in England was to “screen marriages” and, in the most coercive of cases, to verify the so-called “hereditary quality” of a match before allowing it to be enacted. Implicated in this policy was an aspiration on the part of the socially prominent—physicians in particular—to rule society on a scientific basis, and an elitist ideological concern to thwart the effects of nineteenth-century political democratization. Like pronatalism in France during the same period, eugenics—particularly the version of its founder, Francis Galton—was one of the first political-scientific models to take account of the increasing control couples were acquiring over their own fertility. Eugenics reflected both fear on the part of the professional elites that couples’ increasing freedom to choose would result in the decay of the nation’s population through mediocrity, and their desire to influence behaviour, i.e., to regulate society. Since that time, the criminal eugenics policies of totalitarian regimes—first and foremost the Nazis—and sterilization campaigns in democracies such as the United States, Sweden and Switzerland have exposed the hidden risks involved in any plan to construct policy on biological foundations.

What was demography’s position with respect to eugenics?

Demography played a major role in the situation just described. Eugenics was very much concerned with population. In the 1980s, historians looked simultaneously at the roles played by eugenics and demography in the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century, starting with fascism and Nazism. Today’s demographers are conscious of this past but assess it differently depending on the country. A recent article showed that European and North American medical specialists in genetic counselling are more aware of and sensitive to the dangers of this “heritage” than their counterparts in other parts of the world.

What of eugenics today? In what framework might it operate?

The most common answer is what is sometimes called “private eugenics”; that is, couples choosing to abort embryos that show serious genetic malformations. The debate is on whether or not this is eugenics. On one hand, it does not involve a general goal regarding the supposed “quality” of a nation or race as in the early twentieth century; on the other, individual choices taken together may be seen to reflect collective values. In Destins de l’eugénisme I wanted to show that history has not been given its rightful place in this debate: the link between eugenics and Nazism—fundamental but in this connection reductive—is superficially cited as a decisive argument. I tried to show that the question of the eugenics “heritage” is much more complex and multiform. It cannot be reduced to socio-biological theories and methods but also concerns the psychology of personal development, by way of interconnections that I have called “ligatures.” Marital counselling, for example, was a reshaping of the recommendations that eugenicists drew up for young couples during the interwar period.
Eugenics, then, was not simply a biological or genetic theory; it was also a moral theory, fuelled initially by the specific culture of the British elites, then reformulated during the New Deal by progressive American psychologists and “population scholars.” Through these channels—and others detailed in the book—eugenics became one of the (innumerable) sources in the development of twentieth-century social and public health policies.