Sunday, 6 December 2015

The state has no business sterilizing people

Recently someone asked this in a rationalist Facebook group I follow, and I thought I might have enough to say about it to fill a blog post:

I’ve come across some rather scary views on how to deal with child abuse and want to test how widespread these policy views are in the atheist / rationalist community. So please tell me what your thoughts are on the idea that the state should sterilize people who have been shown to be bad parents. I think that we need to come up with less extreme ways to combat child abuse such as having a social worker come into the home every month for the first 10 years of a child’s life to check up on the home environment and to make sure there is no abuse going on.

For starters, it gets scarier than that. Sterilizing people who have been “shown to be bad parents” is, in fact, a toned-down version of the idea you often hear, which is that every woman should be sterilized who is on a government benefit. Or – and this has been suggested by certain Members of Parliament – that the benefit should be made contingent on the woman’s use of contraceptives. (Why yes, these remarks are always directed at women.)

My instinctive response to this is a mental wail of despair at the inhumanity of humankind. What kind of person looks at a suffering child and says “You’re costing me money, your mother needs to get her tubes tied”? Apparently, an alarming proportion of New Zealanders. It may be relevant that the “bad parents” who get thrown into the media and spark these kinds of conversations are almost always Māori or Pacific Islanders – way out of proportion to their actual presence in the child abuse statistics. When right-wing columnists, cartoonists, or bloggers pour scorn on “ferals”, that’s who they’re referring to.

At the root of this attitude is a thoughtless misdiagnosis of the motivations of people at the bottom of the social heap. No, women on benefits are not indiscriminate sex maniacs, nor do they have babies so as to get more money from the government. Childbirth statistics around the world paint a very clear picture. People choose to have fewer children when (a) women are empowered, (b) contraceptives are widely available, and (c) the few children they do have are certain to survive. Women pump out baby after baby when they have no choice, when their only hope of gaining respect is in the role of a mother, or (especially) when they know their children are going to be the only support network available in their old age.

Ironically, that point about family as support network may also account for the higher rate of child abuse among the poor. I admit I’m speculating here, but most kinds of violence are reduced when people see each other as fellow human beings with their own feelings and rights. If you are depending on your children to support you when you are old, on the other hand, then their independence is a threat to your future well-being. What if they find a job and a partner in another city and you are left all alone? Better to instil habits of obedience and dependence on you from an early age.

I’d better wrap this up before I go off on a tangent in areas where I really don’t know what I’m talking about. One of those areas is how you can take an abusive parent or partner and turn them into someone who is not an abusive parent or partner. But in this era when everyone has a different theory of what’s good or bad parenting, giving the state the power to perform non-consensual surgery on people deemed to be bad parents is surely one of the worse ideas around.

Funnily enough, the same people recommending sterilization for “ferals” are often the ones most angry at the Government for clamping down on the use of force in parental discipline. Do they realize that a government with the powers they want to give it would use those powers first on the same “strict but loving parents” they champion?


  1. I also detect a leftover whiff of eugenics in this line of thought - the idea that people who are "bad" represent a taint we need to clear from the gene pool.

    That seems to be in conflict with modern understanding of how genes work. I may be wrong here, but *my* understanding was that modern research showed that genes get turned on and off by environmental stimuli. If that's the case then any genetic predisposition to be an awful person is better handled by stopping it from being triggered (by looking after people better in general) than by trying to breed it out.

  2. There are reasons why eugenics wouldn't work, but I'm afraid that's not one of them. We've successfully bred desirable traits into a couple of dozen animals and hundreds of plants, and their genes work fundamentally the same way ours do. I think I will expand on this in a future blog post, rather than write screeds in a comment here -- watch this space.