(a note on content)
Some of the stories in the exhibition feature racist, ableist, and/or homophobic medical terms which are offensive. As curators and writers of this exhibition, we have done our best to use these terms responsibly, with a view to appropriately contextualising and exploring these ideas and their history, and encouraging continuing critical thought in the interests of positive social change in the future.
While trying to address these issues squarely, we are also aware that we may ourselves use racist and ableist language naively or in error. As such, we welcome corrections and suggestions for improving the language used here, and encourage you to get in touch with us to help us learn and improve the language of the exhibition if you feel we have done so. The exhibition also features images of pathology specimens which include human organs.
Gold IUD and Uterus, UCL Pathology Collections, 1945-1988.
This gold-plated stem pessary is an early version of an intrauterine device (IUD). This contraceptive device would have been inserted into the cervix and uterus with the arms together and opening into a wishbone shape with arms securing it in place. The purpose of this device is to alter the chemical composition of the cervical mucus, which makes it more difficult for sperm to reach an egg and survive. The reason for the gold-plating is due to the nonreactivity of gold as a metal, preventing corrosion, irritation and infection (Margulies, 1975). Modern day IUDs are copper as the metal is cheaper, and though less durable than gold serves the same function. Although effective, implantation does come with some risks.
The birth control movement and quest for more advanced and available types of contraception intersected with the rise of the eugenics movement in both Britain and America in the 1920s (Engelman, 2011). The most heavily targeted groups for both contraception and sterilization were poorer people, ethnic minorities and the majority of institutionalised women be it in prisons or medical institutions such as asylums and hospitals (Caitlin, 2020). In Britain, the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act which promoted the institutionalisation and segregation of the "feeble minded" and "unfit" was heavily influenced by the eugenics movement (Pfeiffer, 1994). Many disabled women, including women with learning disabilities and women suffering from mental illness fell into this category, and were sterilized without their consent (Roy et al. 2012).
Contraception remains a controversial topic in relation to disabled adults, becoming a more contentious debate when those with intellectual disabilities are involved. Several countries including the UK, by law regulate contraceptive practices for women with intellectual disabilities. Though this complies with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, many have criticized the approach medical professions and governments have taken (Greenwood and Wilkinson, 2013). More often than not, the rights of people and especially women with intellectual disabilities can be supplanted by the interests of carers or family members. Although these practices are no longer used for eugenic purposes, hysterectomies and involuntary administration of contraceptives (usually implants) continue to be performed for menstrual management globally. Women with intellectual disabilities in Europe are three times more likely to be sterilized than their non-disabled counterpart (Miller and Levine, 2013). Although there have been successful lawsuits in the USA, Canada, and Australia spanning the 1970-90s attributing the reproductive right to agency of the individual women over the wishes of their family or carers, typically medical professionals weight the family or carer’s wishes above those of the person with disabilities (Roy et al. 2012).
This medical and legal bias against disabled people is in some part due to disabled people being excluded from academia which often influence the policies, legislation and public perception and option of disability. To counter this, many disability activist groups have mounted projects and drives to educate both public and private agencies, about the facts around disability and the legal rights disabled people should be afforded. This has included the targeting of academic and medical institutions (Pfeiffer, 1994). Geneticists and medical professionals should recognize the implications that their research can have on those with disabilities, as well as acknowledging historical trauma that the eugenics movement has caused to these communities. They should seek to involve people with disabilities in discussions about policies and medical practices that affect them (Miller and Levine, 2013).
The reproductive rights of disabled people are often restricted through sterilization, usually through "permanent"/long term contraceptive means such as IUDs. But of greater concern is a global trend of medical recommendations for the termination of "defective" foetuses, based on chances of disability not necessarily viability. One of the most well publicised examples of this is the prevalence of termination of Down's syndrome foetuses in Iceland and Denmark with more than 95% of parents choosing to abort foetuses which test positive in prenatal Down’s syndrome screenings (Quinones and Lajka, 2017; Zhang, 2020). Many disability activists, Down’s syndrome groups and disabled individuals have argued that this trend of terminating disabled foetuses, often on the advice of medical professionals, is paramount to genetic genocide (Miller and Levine, 2013). Similarly, suggesting that when an impairment causes minimal health problems or "suffering," the health-care and medical community must recognize that judgments regarding "quality of life" must be made by the disabled individual, not researchers, clinicians or even family members/carers (Greenwood and Wilkinson, 2013). These practices have bought to light the discussion around who has the "right" to choose what "kinds" of people deserve to reproduce as well as be born in our society (Pfeiffer, 1994; Roy et al. 2012). Even though, this means a more complex and nuanced decision-making progress, this approach is favourable to the uniform approach of "eradicating" or "curing" all disability (Miller and Levine, 2013; Greenwood and Wilkinson, 2013).
To conclude, despite the eugenics movement generally having been discredited and rejected by the scientific community, the ideology and effect the research has had on science and specifically the medical profession runs deep. The result and real-world application is more subtle than the legislation and practices of the past. The argument can be made that this form of "soft eugenics" is still effecting many demographics today not only in "developing" or "conservative" countries but in arguably, "educated" and "liberal" countries. The sterilization of people with intellectual disability, in addition to the prevalence of termination of foetuses who have a high chance of disability, can be seen as an indirect consequence of the eugenics movement. These links between population control, and advances in central genetic developments, highlight that the darker uses of eugenics are not necessarily a thing of the past. Removing the agency and right to have children under the reasoning of "kindness" and "quality of life" of the individual and their families/careers is neither an ideology nor a practice that belongs in the inclusive society we strive for.
By Sophia Roy
Engelman, Peter. A History of the Birth Control Movement in America. Online: ABC-CLIO.
Fendley, Caitlin. 2020. Eugenics is trending. That’s a problem. The Washington Post. 17 February. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/02/17/eugenics-is-trending-thats-problem/.
Greenwood, Nechama W., and Wilkinson, Joanne. 2013. Sexual and reproductive health care for women with intellectual disabilities: a primary care perspective. International Journal of Family Medicine: 1-8. DOI: 10.1155/2013/642472
Miller, Paul S., and Levine, Rebecca L. 2013. Avoiding genetic genocide: understanding good intentions and eugenics in the complex dialogue between the medical and disability communities. Genetics in Medicine 15 (2): 95-102. DOI: 10.1038/gim.2012.102
Margulies, Lazar. 1975. History of Intrauterine Devices. Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 51(5):662-667.
Pfeiffer, David. 1994. Eugenics and disability discrimination. Disability & Society 9(4): 481-499. DOI: 10.1080/09687599466780471
Roy, Ashwin., Roy, Ameeta., and Roy, Meera. 2012. The human rights of women with intellectual disability. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 105(9):384-389.
Quinones, Julian., and Lajka, Arijeta. 2017. 'What Kind of Society Do You Want to Live In?’ Inside the Country Where Down Syndrome Is Disappearing. CBS News. 14 August. Available at: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/down-syndrome-iceland/.
Zhang, Sarah. 2020. The Last Children of Down Syndrome. The Atlantic. December. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/12/the-last-children-of-down-syndrome/616928/.
LDUAC-UCL1319ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Ceramic head, “Ceramic caricature male head, tongue sticking out”, Institute of Archaeology Collections, date of manufacture unknown, collected early 20th Century.
Perhaps in an attempt to comprehend our exceptionalism in a universe of unknowns, our attempts to reflect....
LDUCE-UC33278ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Racial ‘type’ head from Memphis, Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology, date of manufacture unknown, purchased or excavated early 20th century.
In the Petrie Museum at UCL, there is a painted terracotta sculpture of a head, which was either....
LDUEC-I.0035ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Southern African Beaded Girdle, UCL Ethnography Collections, late 19th/early 20th century.
In the UCL Ethnography Collection, one can find object I.0035, a beaded Zulu girdle from South Africa that belonged to a young girl....
LDUGC-040ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Hair Colour Gauge, UCL Science Collections (Galton Collection), 1905.
In the Galton Collection at UCL lies a peculiar object. What could be mistaken for a large glasses case....
LDUGC-095ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Sweet Pea Measuring Device, UCL Science Collections (Galton Collection), c.1870s.
Heredity refers to the genetic processes by which certain characteristics are transmitted from parent to offspring....