In 1907, influenced by the Eugenics Movement, Indiana adopted an “act to prevent procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists”, which was the first legislation of this kind in the United States. Christine Hassenstab, author of the open access book “Body Law and the Body of Law”, published by De Gruyter Open, uses this period to analyze the social circumstances of this infamous law and its creation. She compares it to the context of the debates that accompanied the sterilization practices in Norway in the 30s, and to later discussions about abortion in these two countries. I am pleased to present an interview with Christine Hassenstab about her very recent work.
What led you to research the problem of laws concerning reproduction control?
All my life, I have been interested in too many things. After I received my degree in biology I started to take an interest in law and legal theory, and these two main interests of mine – biology and the law – led me to start research on the subject of eugenics.
Another reason, is that I think it is an important and up-to-date topic. When I was starting my PhD, some ideas inspired by eugenics were coming back into public debate in some countries. Many bio-ethical questions, such as computer storage of bio-bank information, etc. were also being debated. And given the political discourses I read about in some countries, I was concerned about how different ethnic groups were talked about in what I call “body politics”.
There is a sociological theory called intersectionality, which is based on a combined analysis of ethnicity, gender, class and race as interconnected phenomena. Eugenics is a good example of how gender discrimination and racism are interwoven. Issues connected to reproduction are also very often used to ferment nationalism, and my book has shown that usually it happens in a time of deep epistemic change.
So is eugenics a current problem?
Eugenics was practiced for a very long time and in fact never passed away. So many countries are now obsessed with physical fitness or smoking that it may became possible to ask “should unfit people or people who smoke have the same medical rights as other citizens?” There is an obsession of seeing the nation as a body and in asking what kind of body we want to accept.
Europe is changing right now and facing huge changes. We need new sources of power and a new technological shift to drive the economy. People are apprehensive about what the future will bring as it is such an unknown. The combination of moral panic and new technologies drove the eugenics movement. This is why discourses similar to eugenic ones are starting to appear again.
What can we, as a society, learn from your research?
In the last two chapters of the book I tried to answer the question of what we can do to prevent the return of eugenics to our legislation. I was analyzing contemporary laws and wondering how not to be embarrassed about them at a future date or if the law will be judged as violating human rights one day? And I think that at the moment our legal frameworks are not sufficient to deal with the problem. But I suggest some alternatives.
Why did you decide to publish your book in Open Access?
It is about spreading information. I think the most important is to find an audience for a research book. We should care more about that and open access is a good way to do it.
What did your cooperation with the publisher look like? Could you describe the editorial process at De Gruyter Open from an author’s perspective?
Well, in my case, it was wonderful. An author is really in love with her words and it is so helpful to work with good editors who are going though the text and helping you to spot all the mistakes and shortcomings. I could not have asked for better help! It was a very good experience.
Thank you very much!
Image: Phyically fit by Henry J. Glintnenkamp, 1917