G. K. Chesterton on Eugenics, Wages and Abortion

In Eugenics and Other Evils, a book written before the outbreak of the First World War as eugenics had started to gain in popularity, but only published in 1922 after the ‘ideals’ of that movement, shattered by the reality of war, began to resurface again, G. K. Chesterton makes the suggestion that the desire to prevent certain parts of the population from breeding, whilst in some cases seized upon in a spirit of genuine concern for the improvement of social conditions, is rooted more fundamentally in a desire to control the poor. That it is an approach to solving society’s problems even more fundamentally rooted in the half-truths and lies cloaked in silver which are the speciality of the devil is also duly noted, but it is the practical and mundane expressions of those satanic fallacies that Chesterton is more concerned with. What is striking though, is how often his observations can be applied to today’s debate about the propriety and morality of abortion.

In a chapter titled The Meanness of the Motive, Chesterton reflects upon a letter written to a national newspaper by a supporter of eugenics which had argued that the increase of poverty will never be stopped until the poor have been ‘educated’ in the ways that other more ‘enlightened’ parts of society have started to prevent the act of procreation. The writer of the letter had signed himself ‘Hopeful’ and Chesterton uses this invocatory autograph as a platform from which to attack some of the central assumptions of the eugenics movement:

The curious point is that the hopeful one concludes by saying, “When people have large families and small wages, not only is there a high infantile death-rate, but often those who do live to grow up are stunted and weakened by having had to share the family income for a time with those who died early. There would be less unhappiness if there were no unwanted children.” You will observe that he tacitly takes it for granted that the small wages and the income, desperately shared, are the fixed points, like day and night, the conditions of human life. Compared with them marriage and maternity are luxuries, things to be modified to suit the wage-market. There are unwanted children; but unwanted by whom? This man does not really mean that the parents do not want to have them. He means that the employers do not want to pay them properly.

Doubtless, if you said to him directly, “Are you in favour of low wages?” he would say, “No.” But I am not, in this chapter, talking about the effect on such modern minds of a cross-examination to which they do not subject themselves. I am talking about the way their minds work, the instinctive trick and turn of their thoughts, the things they assume before argument, and the way they faintly feel that the world is going. And, frankly, the turn of their mind is to tell the child he is not wanted, as the turn of my mind is to tell the profiteer that he is not wanted. Motherhood, they feel, and a full childhood, and the beauty of brothers and sisters, are good things in their way, but not so good as a bad wage. About the mutilation of womanhood, and the massacre of men unborn, he signs himself “Hopeful.” He is hopeful of female indignity, hopeful of human annihilation. But about improving the small bad wage he signs himself “Hopeless.”

Eugenics and Other Evils (2009), pp.138-139, Bibliolife.

                There is a great deal of argument about employer and employee, about the structure of society and the distribution of ownership of property that precedes this passage, and which it is not possible to go into here without becoming a dissertation on Catholic social teacing in general (a topic on which Chesterton has written much here and elsewhere). The main point that is made in this passage though, is that those who wished to exercise a policy of selection in marriages and births did so particularly among the poor, and they did so not (though same may have felt this to be their motivation) primarily to alleviate poverty, but to reduce the number of ‘useless’ citizens. Eugenics was and is a deeply anti-human philosophy, which applies the incomplete ethic of utilitarianism to an area where it is also completely improper – the human person.

Another key point that Chesterton makes here is that those who argued for eugenics as public policy had a strong sense of ‘the way they faintly feel that the world is going’ – i.e.; it is born of a progressivist outlook that the world will keep rolling onwards and upwards to our general benefit, increase in scientific and technological knowledge will solve all our problems, the past can offer us no answers, and any eggs broken along the way are justified in order to reach the more perfect society of the future. This way that the world is going, as Chesterton comments, because it is in principle against the idea of looking to the past for advice, cannot fathom the suggestion that we might change the conditions of the poor by changing the way we produce, the way we do business, and the way we live in general. It does not even enter the head of the progressivist that mistakes may have been made, or that they can be altered by going back to square one.

Because of this it was possible for the eugenicists of Chesterton’s time to see it as preferable to kill a child in the womb (nay, to kill several children in the womb, just as long as they were the ‘wrong’ kind of child – on who actually has the authority to decide who lives and dies, and on what basis, previous chapters give a thorough examination, but the summary answer is nobody) than to do something about the structures that enabled poor people to be exploited and to be trapped in their poverty in the first place. It is incredible to think though, reading Chesterton’s words today, how similar the arguments of the eugenicists are to the arguments of abortionists today, and how entrenched that sense of inevitable progress is in the latter as in the former; how little the outlook of our culture has changed since then, and how little we have learned.

Clearly today the actual reasons for aborting innocent children are in some ways even more reprehensible – the desire to go on holiday, the problems having a child would create for career prospects, the not feeling quite ready for that sort of thing are vastly more common reasons for having an abortion than the emotive and difficult cases invoked by abortion advocates (rape or incest for example). But another common justification for easy access to abortion is that people on low incomes cannot support x number of children, and so they should be helped out of this dilemma by not only making it easy to obtain an abortion, but by nigh on convincing them that it is incumbent upon them to do so. Again, as in Chesterton’s day, it is rarely suggested that instead of killing the children of the poor, we do something to change things long-term that might make having a family viable again, or decreasing the reliance of workers on exploitative companies, giving them the chance to be in control of their own destinies.

Another way in which the legacy of eugenics hangs over the abortion industry is that there are a disproportionate number of people from ethnic minorities that are encouraged to, and that do, have abortions. That this is by no means an accidental point of contact between eugenics and the abortion industry (and yes, chilling as it is to think, and despite what its supporters may say, it is an industry) can be seen by perusal of the intentions of Margaret Sanger, one of the founders of the birth control movement and a very keen eugenicist (see here and here). But also it is an unfortunate and uncomfortable fact of modern life that in our multicultural societies a high proportion of ethnic minorities in the West do come from poorer backgrounds, and it is the poor that abortionists really want to ‘manage’ the numbers of, in lieu of actually doing something about their situation.

Chesterton saw all this early on, before the eugenics movement itself had even had a chance to show its colours, and at a time when such thinking was becoming popular. However, he also lived in a time when it was still new and could be seen and contrasted against older ways of thinking that still carried some force in the public sphere. Nowadays the progressivist school of thought is so deeply entrenched in our culture that its assumptions are examined even less, and there are fewer corners of society that remember any alternative. Thus the greatest horror of the abortion advocacy movement is perhaps that so few even see it as horrible – it is considered a sensible solution to the problems of modern life. Determined not to look back, convinced that we are getting it right and will get it righter still if we keep doing what we are doing, we march onwards uncritically, our moral compasses becoming more marred as we go. The poor remain poor, whilst our leaders continue to offer the wrong answers to problems they have misunderstood, and children die in their mothers’ womb – it is by this last point that our age will be judged.

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