Eugenics in Catalonia





César Alcalá


Before Nazi Germany advocated what came to be known as social hygiene, in Catalonia (Spain) this variant of the theory of eugenics had already been put into practice. With this concept, the Nazis presumed to improve the human race. The victims were all those whose lives were deemed unworthy of being lived. According to psychologist Robert Jay Lifto:

Of the five identifiable steps according to which the Nazis developed the principle of life worthy of being lived, coercive sterilization was the first. They followed the murder of disabled children in hospitals and then disabled adults, mostly from insane asylums, in centers equipped with carbon monoxide devices. This project was extended (in the same centers) to disabled inmates of concentration and extermination camps, to finally become mass murders perpetrated within the camps themselves“.

Apart from those mentioned, others who also did not deserve to live included criminals, political dissidents, pedophiles, homosexuals, the lazy, and religious. Among other activities, the Nazis conducted extensive experiments on living humans to test their genetic theories, ranging from the simple measurement of physical characteristics to the horrendous experiments with twins conducted by Mengele and von Verschuer in the concentration camps. From 1930 to 1940, they forcibly sterilized hundreds of thousands of people whom they considered mentally and physically unfit. The scale of the Nazi program caused the American defenders of eugenics to seek an extension of their own efforts. The Nazis came to kill tens of thousands of official invalids through compulsory euthanasia programs. They also implemented several positive eugenics policies, awarding prizes to Aryan women who had a large number of children and promoting a service in which racially pure, unmarried women were impregnated by SS officers. Many of their concerns about eugenics and racial hygiene were also present in the systematic extermination of millions of undesirable people during the Holocaust.

In the United States, eugenics legislation on forced and massive sterilization was passed prior to the advent of Nazism. Other countries that promoted forced sterilization during the 19th and 20th centuries were the nations of Scandinavia, France and Switzerland. Thus, while so-called racial hygiene was hardly unknown, this does not imply its justification. It might indeed have been supported by such eminent individuals as Alexander Graham Bell, George Bernard Shaw or Winston Churchill. Nevertheless, the practice of eugenics is a crime against humanity. Steve Sailer considers this aspect:

But the twentieth century suffered two ideologies that led to genocides. Marxism had no use for race, did not believe in genes and denied that human nature was a significant concept. Clearly, it is not an emphasis on genes or evolution that is dangerous. It is the desire to remake humanity through coercive methods (eugenics or social hygiene) and the belief that humanity is advanced thanks to a struggle in which the superior groups (race or class) triumph over the inferior ones.

This social current favorable to the implementation of eugenics, although in decline at the beginning of the 1930s, was manifest in Catalonia following some postulates already experienced in other countries.

Before delving into the eugenics theories that the Generalitat of Catalonia approved, we must define the term eugenics and its evolution since the middle of the 19th century. Eugenics is defined as the study of the possibilities of improving the human species through procedures that will influence the hereditary characteristics of future generations. The word derives from the Greek eugene, which means well-born. The notion of inheritance is already part of the intellectual ideology from Classical Greece. Plato spoke of inheritance and much later, during the eighteenth century, empirical studies were made with plants such as tobacco, as well as human beings, to confirm that there was indeed a contribution of both sexes to the offspring. Classical eugenics, insofar as it was applied, was characterized by limiting individual reproductive rights for the sake of the genetic health of future generations. It was, fundamentally, a negative eugenics applied almost always coercively.

In the nineteenth century, phrenologists took great care over the human heritage, and the breeders of animals and plants applied empirical and effective rules. Gemulas were part of the Darwinian theory of pangenesis, and were elements that circulated throughout the body, were transmitted from parents to children, and changed by the incidence of the environment. Francis Galton, father of the eugenics theory and cousin of Charles Darwin, first tried to prove the theory of pangenesis, but he did not succeed. What he did was to elaborate the eugenics theory. Galton defines eugenics for the first time in 1883, but its fundamentals are based on previous works. Inquiries into Human Faculty (1907) would become his masterpiece.

Sir Francis Galton (1822-1917) was born in Birmingham the same year as George Mendel, with whom he had great affinity, and was also a maternal cousin of the famous Charles Darwin. His most important works were inspired by his two great hobbies: the study of inheritance and the mathematical expression of the phenomena linked to it. He was the first to assign a number to a set of variables, and thus obtain a measure of the degree of relationship between them. He maintained the idea that exceptionally tall people tended to have children of shorter stature than their parents, while very short people had children who were taller than their parents. Galton articulated this as the regression to mediocrity, applicable to the sizes of successive generations. This principle is considered the first fallacy in the theory of regression. The justification given to this fact today is that the extreme values of a distribution are due largely to chance.

With Darwin’s system of species evolution, the idea that world’s resources had a limited capacity of survival that was inversely proportional to Malthus’s concept of population growth alarmed a large number of intellectuals and members of the English middle classes who were concerned about what appeared to be a degeneration of the race. This was further exacerbated by the consequences of the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – overcrowding in cities and the emergence of diseases that were thought to be hereditary or that affected hereditary characteristics, such as tuberculosis, syphilis or alcoholism. Hence, Galton developed a theory of his own based on well-made statistical calculations but with questionable evidence derived from his travel experiences and his private life.

Francis Galton came to be considered one of the prominent individuals of what was then the English Empire. He combined his statistical studies and those of medicine to draw up charts of the evolution of “good” English families and tried to classify patients or criminals, which was what worried him within what he considered classes or inferior stocks. Especially toward the end of his life he would speak openly about the classification of people by lineage or race, even within the same society, and would not grant education or the environment as factors. He wanted to achieve with his particular eugenic religion the improvement of each one of the following levels: honorable Englishmen; classes of artisans or workers; the poor and miserable. Galton placed at the top of the pyramid, as an upper class, the honorable Englishman, since he himself was a loyal subject of the Empire.

Galton believed that if marriage was encouraged among the best of each class so that the best would have children, society would be improved, since one of their main concerns was that lower-class marriages produced more children than those of higher classes. He also theorized that women of higher classes suffered more during childbirth and furthermore tried unsuccessfully to do biometric studies in schools and institutions to find out, for example, the differences between rural schoolchildren and those in the city, which he thought were more degraded.

A few years before his death in 1911, Galton managed to include his statistical tables on notable English families in the Biometrics Laboratory created by his disciple, Karl Pearson, at the University of London. In them he showed that genius or intelligence are inherited, based on the fact that university students who would later occupy positions of responsibility were themselves the children of notable personages.

After Galton’s death, his theories about eugenics arguably became even more widespread. These expressions reached their zenith in the 1930’s and 40’s. After World War II, eugenics was thoroughly out of favor. The world was ashamed that nations could have put into practice some postulates that many privately shared. This is thus part of the false socio-political puritanism of some culturally advanced societies. The application of these ideas not only exterminated people, but also created dangerous precedents for breeding experiments, selecting women for soldiers or purebred male specimens. As Dr. Cecilia Castañera affirms:

Enforced sterilizations began in the United States as early as 1907, since the first law in favor of eugenics in the State of Indiana was passed. From that moment began a dramatic race of numbers counted by thousands across the country, which would compete with the other very sad figures operated by German Nazism. This has been confirmed by a study conducted at Yale University and published in the prestigious medical journal Annals of Internal Medicine, which has shocked even more the democratic American society by stating that such practices do not belong to such a distant past, because they were applied until well into the 60s, and with a clear eugenics intentionality: to eliminate physically and mentally handicapped people or people “naturally” inclined to crime.

Other “civilized” countries have also been tarnished by similar scandals, as the press has revealed by exposing the pracices of Switzerland, Austria, Sweden or Norway – where sterilization was frequent in people with disabilities – until the 70s. Charles Darwin never thought that his theory about the natural selection of animal species would have such fervent adherents, much less that such a theory would inspire an attempted selection of human beings worked indiscriminately by the strongest over the weakest.

The involuntary sterilization of eugenics inspiration, to achieve a more “human” society for a few, strips the person of part of their sexuality, that is, paradoxically, part of their “humanity”; sexuality that, let’s not forget, is not a simple addition, but an essential component of the person. And we should ask ourselves if it is possible to humanize a society through essentially “inhuman” methods; that is, methods that plunder part of the society of a property that is now “private”, brutally breaking into their bodies without their consent.

The theories of Sir Francis Galton enjoyed a certain prestige in Spain. The introducer of these theories in Catalonia was Felix Martí Ibáñez (1911-1972), a physician and sexologist affiliated with the National Confederation of Labor (CNT). Dr. Martí was a pioneer in addressing sexology in the decade of the 30s of the last century from his office in the Gracia neighborhood of Barcelona. General Director of Health and Social Assistance of the Generalitat of Catalonia, promoted a task of reorganization of health services, launching a new system of social and preventive medicine. His projects include the creation of laboratories for prostitutes, sexual information centers for young people, and an Institute of Sexual Sciences. In 1937 he was appointed Undersecretary of Health of the Government of the Republic. Martí Ibáñez wrote:

The new revolutionary sexual ethics will never establish norms of collective behavior, but will forge in the forge of each individual thought the desire to resolve, integrally and sincerely, the erotic-sentimental problems that each person faces. All our future task is to create a constructive eugenic propaganda, a firm culture of love.

Since the proclamation of the Second Republic of the Government of the Generalitat, it has promoted a series of measures to reform Catalan health. These focused on venereal diseases, tuberculosis, leprosy, malaria, rabies, varicose veins, rheumatism and cancer. They also promoted hygienic measures for society, tried to prevent professional poisonings, and fought to prevent occupational diseases of all kinds. Regarding eugenics, the First Spanish Eugenics Conference -prohibited in 1928 during the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera- took place in 1933, as the First Spanish Eugenics Symposium being closed by Manuel Azaña, and having had characters like Fernández de los Ríos Urruti, Roberto Novoa Santos, Gregorio Marañón, Ramón J. Sender, Gonzalo Rodríguez Lafora, Luis Jiménez de Asúa, Hildegart Rodríguez Carballeira, Federico García Lorca or Rafael Alberti.

The Second Spanish Republic, despite its religious sectarianism, kept abortion as a crime. Not so the government of the Generality that approved, by decree, on December 25, 1936, the law of eugenics reform of abortion. That is, the Generalitat demarcated itself from the postulates of the Second Republic and allowed women in Catalonia to freely abort to improve the race. The author of the first law on the voluntary interruption of pregnancy was, as we have said, Dr. Felix Marti Ibáñez.

The decree was not a mere revolutionary accident, since years before there were doctors and jurists who advocated its implementation. The reason was to control the future quality of the breed. The law was signed by Josep Tarradellas, conseller en cap (prime minister) of the government of the Generalitat, Pedro Herrera, minister of Sanitat and Social care and Rafael Vidiella, minister of Justice. Established four cases to authorize abortion up to three months:

1. Therapeutic causes (physical or mental illness of the mother that contraindicates the birth).

2. The eugenic motive (paternal incest or shortcomings that could be propagated in the future be).

3. Neomalthusian factors (conscious desire for voluntary birth restriction).

4. Sentimental or ethical (unwanted motherhood for the mother due to causes of love or emotional order).

The new legislation recognized the right of women to voluntary abortion and incorporated the artificial interruption of pregnancy in the Health Service of the Generalitat. In the introduction of the decree one could read:

We must put an end to the opprobrium of clandestine abortions, a source of maternal mortality, for the termination of pregnancy, to become an instrument at the service of the interests of the race and carried out by those who have scientific solvency and authorization to carry it out”.

Dr. Félix Martí Ibáñez, general director of the Ministry of Health, wrote in relation to this problem:

We will no longer attend the spectacle of dead mothers because of a failed abortive maneuver, of infanticides arising from the hatred of the child that was born unwanted, of women with their life course twisted by a son that is a stigma or a reminiscence of something that we would like to forget, of children who came to homes without bread and parents without love“.

In the city of Barcelona, abortions were authorized for the Casa de la Maternidad, the General Hospital of Catalonia, the Hospital Clínico and the Cardenal Hospital. In the rest of Catalonia you could only practice in: Lérida, Sant Joan de les Abadesses, Badalona, Berga, Granollers, Reus, Igualada, Olot, Vic, Gerona and Vilafranca del Penedés.

The first case was practiced at the Cardinal Hospital. She was a 25-year-old girl whose husband was in front of Madrid. The young woman was of low cultural level. Besides, his father was syphilitic and cancerous. His mother had died of a heart condition. His two brothers had died of pneumonia. Her other sister was scrofulous, an infectious process that affects the lymph nodes. The young woman had already had two children. These were syphilitic and subnormal. Before this picture it was decided that it had to abort, because the future creature did not fit within the parameters of Catalan racial quality.

Both the anarcho-syndicalists and those parties that supported the ERC agreed with the eugenics reform of abortion. Only the communists dared to criticize some aspects of the law. This criticism was one more example of the ideological, political and strategic confrontation that during a good part of the civil war faced the communists with the anarcho-syndicalists.

The Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista -Worker’s Party of Marxist Unification- (POUM) also protested against the law. Dr. Mina -a Romanian medical activist of the POUM- in his pamphlet El problema sanitario ante la revolución proletaria The Health Problem in the face of the proletarian revolution (1937), wrote:

Interest of the race! It smells the influence of the theory of racism, so loved by the German Nazis […] What matters for the human species is not the selection of a small number of individuals, but the creation of sufficient subsistence conditions to allow all members of society live and benefit […] And precisely because we do not know if abortion, even when practiced in an irreproachable manner, is harmful to women’s health, is why it would be necessary to organize, not only hospital services for the interruption of pregnancy, but mainly centers to teach women the best precautions to avoid it“.

A militant of the POUM in this regard declared:

It will be much worse than before. Only men will win. When a woman is denied insurance they will answer: But if you do not risk anything. You already know that you can abort […] I think precisely of the men who will try to abuse women and who have not yet understood that it is about more than practicing a revolutionary debauchery.

And the POUM brochure La mujer -The woman- affirmed:

From now on, the woman will be able to determine freely about her body. He will have children because he wants to and will be able to live his personal life without fear that at any given moment he will pay too dearly for all the happiness that he enjoyed.

The Minister of Health of the Generalitat, Pere Herrera, justified the eugenics law approved on Christmas Day 1936:

Those of us who yearn for a new humanity full of love should prevent the birth of the unwanted. Since they could be probable beings condemned to the contempt and the abandonment of their parents. Those of us who dreamed of an era of beauty could not consent to the existence of beings stigmatized by the blights of their parents, which would overshadow the future of the new generations“.

The legislators of the Generalitat, as the intelligentsia of the socially more advanced countries -whether Swedish Social Democrats or Republicans in the United States- believed in the virtues of that branch of medicine aimed at controlling the racial quality of future generations. Anyone who might have a disabled, or presumably inherit it, did not deserve to be born. The life principle worthy of being lived was applied in many countries of Europe and, although covert, it is also applied today. There are creatures that do not deserve to be born, if we are governed by some absurd parameters, because they will be condemned beings and stigmatize the purity of the race that we wish to control. Unfortunately, this thought has not evolved positively over the years. Unfortunately, the Government of the Generalitat of Catalonia did nothing more than put into practice an innate thought in man: prevent the birth of the unwanted so that love and beauty reign in a new humanity free of genetic defects. A thought that some have not yet managed to eradicate from their subconscious. Some pro-independence politicians, if they could currently, would apply eugenic practices in 21st century Catalonia.

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