From 18th century eugenics to so-called therapeutic abortion
“Did you have a pre-natal diagnosis during your pregnancy?” asked Emanuela Zuccala’ in 2008 to the then 39-year-old writer, Silvia Ballestra. “Of course,” she responded proudly (mother of two children), “the first amniocentesis I had when I was 29: I would never have taken on the responsibility of bringing a sick child into the world.” Proud of the responsibility demonstrated by such a choice, Ballestra added that sick children are “those who might not have been born with a prenatal diagnosis, those around whom there is pain and a lack of assistance.” Aside from juridical, political or ethical positions, the widespread mentality of today is that amniocentesis constitutes responsible behavior.
It is once again proof that eugenics represents a reality which for many is considered a medical and social conquest. In the last decades, we have returned in fact to a eugenic ideology rooted in the 18th century, albeit on new ground – that tied to technical and scientific capability. In the name of progress and of health, we intervene on human kind. Only a minority think that it is instead a manipulation, convinced that contemporary eugenics constitutes a danger. Along these lines, it is the notion of normality which is at play, since one of the most linear consequences of such an approach is the negation of any type of imperfection. Nothing new, evidently: the division of mankind into people of Class A (with the right to be born and live) and Class B (who are denied those rights) is an old one. The current situation, however, is characterized by another aspect which seems to move in an entirely different direction. The majority of Western countries, in fact, have legislation that protects and supports disability in ways previously unknown. Accepted and assisted like never before in the public sphere on the normative level, those who are disabled however are refused in varying ways in the private arena.
Behind this contradictory duality towards disabled people, there is a long and complex history. Suffice it to consider that the choice of refusing sick children through abortion was the first objective of the movements born at the end of the 1800s. The root of such neo-Malthusian movements was not the achievement of freedom of individual choice but a eugenic utopia – a project to rid the world of the burden of the unfit and unable.
The experience of the mentally disabled in the contemporary age has gone through varying political, social and scientific stages. Mental disability was first excluded, then persecuted, thus put up with, and subsequently accepted. Today, everything is done to cancel it entirely. Obviously, as usually happens in historical processes, the positions are not always rigid, nor chronologically consequential, and in fact attitudes toward mental handicap often overlap.
Aside from the differences, there was something which these approaches had in common: separation. Although in different ways (due to medical, political and cultural changes), the common denominator is that those who are mentally different from a model which is considered normal, do not belong in our world. A close look, in fact, reveals the common thread which ties the choice of families who sold their children as circus freaks and those who shut up people unable to provide for themselves in institutions, the forced sterilization of the unfit and feeble, the decision of many celebrated personalities to hide disability in their family and finally the most definite “separation”, so-called therapeutic abortion.
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