Future Past: Disability, Eugenics, and Brave New Worlds
A public symposium on the history and ongoing implications of eugenic ideologies and practices for people with disabilities.
Why do these issues matter? How can we address them in teaching and pedagogy, in policy and activism, and in art?
8:30 - 9:00: Registration (coffee provided)
9:00 - 9:15: Welcoming remarks: Provost Sue Rosser, San Francisco State University and Catherine Kudlick, Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability
9:15 - 9:30: Table introductions
9:30 - 11:30: Panel 1: WHAT? Eugenics and Disability: Past and Present
- An overview of the symposium’s focus: the history of eugenics movements in North America, and why they are disturbingly relevant today
- Presenters: Alexandra Minna Stern, Marcy Darnovsky, Glenn Sinclair, Nicola Fairbrother
11:30 - 12:30: Lunch
12:30 - 2:30: Panel 2: SO WHAT? The Consequences of Misremembering Eugenics
- What are the social and ethical consequences of omitting eugenics from historical memory or misrepresenting it? What is the price of the pursuit of “human betterment” for reproductive and disability justice?
- Presenters: Rob Wilson, Troy Duster, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Marsha Saxton (moderator)
2:30 - 3:00: Break
3:00 - 5:00: Panel 3: NOW WHAT? Looking Ahead to Brave New Worlds
- What is being done – and what can be done – to increase public and student understanding of the legacies of eugenics through teaching, activism and art?
- Presenters: Gregor Wolbring, Milton Reynolds, Kate Wiley, Patricia Berne
5:00 - 5:10: Closing Remarks: Emily Smith Beitiks, Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability
5:10 - 6:30: Dinner and reception
Registration is free but space is limited. In the spirit of community building, we ask you to join us for the full day, 9am-8pm
Questions? Please contact Emily Beitiks at 415-405-3528415-405-3528 or email beitiks[AT]sfsu[DOT]edu
Panel 1: WHAT? Eugenics and Disability: Past and Present
[Watch a video recording of Panel 1 here]
This panel will provide an overview of the symposium’s focus: the history of eugenics movements in North America, and why they are disturbingly relevant today.
The horrific genocide of over 100,000 disabled people in German medical facilities, which opened the Holocaust, is increasingly acknowledged. But too few are aware that Nazi eugenics had deep roots in the United States and Canada, especially in the North American West. Some 60,000 explicitly eugenic sterilization procedures, fully endorsed by state laws, were performed across the United States between 1909 and the 1970s; of these about 20,000 took place in California. Among the groups most frequently targeted as “unfit” to reproduce were people with disabilities, people of color, queer people, and people living in poverty.
The pursuit of so-called “human betterment” and the efforts to erase disability and disabled people did not end with the waning of 20th century eugenics.The historical context gives pause to disability rights advocates today who are concerned about prenatal selection technologies that prevent the birth of children with particular traits, as well as possible future technologies that could be used to modify children’s genes.
This first panel will begin with brief comments from Alexandra Minna Stern, author of Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America, who will consider how this once-mainstream science, bolstered by cultural ideology and public policy, is too frequently misremembered as work on the fringe. Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society will briefly discuss recent innovations in genetic and reproductive technologies that threaten to again target the marginalized populations whose reproductive rights were denied under previous eugenic efforts. Sterilization survivor Glen Sinclair and oral history team lead Nicola Fairbrother from the Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada project will provide a standpoint perspective on eugenics in Canada.
Connecting the panelists’ presentations, subsequent small-group discussions will consider the continuities and discontinuities between our eugenic past, present, and possible future.
Panel 2: SO WHAT? The Consequences of Misremembering Eugenics
[Watch a video recording of Panel 2 here]
Building on the morning panel, conversation will turn to the underlying social and cultural dynamics that motivate eugenic ideas and practices of the past and present, and to the resistance to them. What are the social and ethical consequences of omitting eugenics from historical memory, or misrepresenting it? What might be gained from including eugenics history in high school and college curricula? How has the growing field of disability studies provided new frames for understanding eugenics and “neo-eugenics” within wider structures of ableism and the cultural prioritization of “cures”? How have the efforts of disability communities to resist neo-eugenics in contemporary biotechnologies intersected with the efforts of reproductive and racial justice advocates? Discussion will focus on the price of the pursuit of “human betterment” for reproductive and disability justice.
Panel 3: NOW WHAT? Looking Ahead to Brave New Worlds
[Watch a video recording of Panel 3 here]
This final panel will consider what is being done – and what can be done – to increase public and student understanding of the legacies of eugenics through teaching, activism and art. In the realm of pedagogy, how might eugenics history enrich social studies, English, and science curricula, while also making students more receptive to contemporary social justice issues? And how might eugenics history lend itself to teaching the intersections of oppressions, rather than the multicultural (but separate and isolated) way that minority history is often taught?
In the art world, how can performance and other artistic efforts reach broader publics with deeper understandings and emotional appreciation of the injustices and dangers of eugenics past, present and future?
What forms of activism are already pushing back against the new eugenics and how might advocates benefit from academic partnerships?
These questions and more will be considered as we strategize for a different kind of “brave new world” – one in which we foster a full and accurate understanding of our eugenic legacies, and avert a new eugenics by reclaiming human biotechnologies for the common good.