Hilda Selwyn-Clarke and the Hong Kong Eugenics League (1): Introduction

I planned this as one short post setting out what little I knew about the Hong Kong Eugenics League (Hilda Selwyn-Clarke1 became Honorary Secretary on arrival in the colony in 1938) and briefly explaining that, although ‘eugenics’ quite rightly has a bad name because of its association with Nazi mass murder, the Hong Kong body was concerned with nothing more sinister than ‘family planning’. I still believe this to be the case, but in the course of my research I found out much more about the League and its origins, and this has necessitated a considerably longer discussion, both to do justice to the controversial issues involved and to offer a reasonably comprehensive picture of the history and activities of the League.

And for the first time in over 150 posts I find it necessary to state my own ideological position. All history is written from a set of assumptions, but I haven’t felt it necessary to trouble the reader with my view that, for all the imperfections of the Allies, it was a massively good thing that they won the war and that this victory was achieved through an endless number of acts of self-sacrifice and courage, all of which I admire immensely. But this is obviously a different kind of issue so I think it’s only fair to the reader to state my own views so they can allow for bias.

This post is written from the political left – anti-imperialist, democratic, non-socialist but further from the centre than is suggested by the label ‘liberal’. I was brought up a Catholic – at the time of debate over ‘birth control’ that preceded and followed the 1968 publication of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae – and I’m now an atheist and materialist.
I didn’t think then and I don’t think now there’s any substance to religious objections to ‘birth control’, and I note that in 2010 only 4% of British Catholics agreed with the Church’s position on this issue.
But I do take seriously some political criticisms of the League’s work and I indicate where I agree and where disagree with them.
I think that cheap, or where appropriate free, contraception should be available to everyone who wants it. I see control of fertility as crucial to solving the serious problems that the world will face in the twenty first century and beyond.
Like Margaret Sanger (see below) I regard the avoidance of abortion as one of the benefits of contraception, but accept that legally available and controlled abortion is unavoidable at the moment.
Earlier this year a British court allowed a vasectomy on a man with learning difficulties.3 The case was unusual in that no-one opposed it and the decision was made in the man’s own best interests. I am very suspicious of forced sterilization but agree that in rare cases the courts should have the right to make such decisions.

I would be grateful if the reader would keep these positions in mind.

Hilda Selwyn-Clarke had been persuaded to become Honorary Secretary of the Hong Kong Eugenics League before she’d left London.4 She and her husband had discussed the problem of Hong Kong’s massive overcrowding with W. C. W. Nixon, a former HKU Professor, who’d co-founded the League in 1936 (more of this later).

I’m sure some of my readers will be surprised to learn of the association of a woman as far left politically as Hilda Selwyn-Clarke5 with Eugenics, the idea that societies should seek to improve themselves by bringing about changes in their ‘gene pool’ in favour of ‘good’ genes. Most people think of eugenics as at best a product of misplaced right wing anxieties about the proliferation of the low-quality genes of the less well-off, and at worst an inspiration for Nazi mass murder, for a programme aimed at eliminating those regarded as physically or mentally ‘defective’ that led to about 275,000 killings and 400,000 forced sterilisations. This program began in 1934 and is often seen as a preparation for, or even the first stage of the Holocaust. Further, the racist assumptions of eugenics undoubtedly played a role in the intensified mass murder that began in 1941, although these were, of course, produced by a complex set of ideological currents (including Christian anti-Semitism).

And, terrible to relate, it wasn’t just the Nazi dictatorship that committed foul crimes in the name of eugenics: Hitler was partly inspired by Californian compulsory sterilisation laws, which also existed in Scandinavia, while in Britain Winston Churchill advocated the same hideous practice, happily without success.6

So naturally when we think of ‘Eugenics’ we think of attempts to ‘purify’ the ‘race’ by one form of violence or another, while perhaps allowing that some at least of those who’d been supporters before the 1930s did not foresee that the genetic ‘improvements’ they advocated would come about through murder and the violation of women’s bodies, rather than, say, campaigns to encourage the possessors of ‘good’ genes to have more children and ‘bad’ ones to have fewer. In any case, like many others I’m now deeply suspicious of anything that smacks of eugenics, and am delighted to find that the evidence strongly suggests that most social (and many personal) pathologies are caused by environmental factors not genetic ones.

But eugenics was much more than just the idea that ‘good’ genes should be promoted and ‘bad’ ones, by whatever means, eliminated; Professor Philippa Levine, co-editor of a definitive international history, tells us about some of the non-destructive aspects of the movement:

Positive eugenics includes things such as blood tests before marriage, to ensure that when you go into a marriage at least every party knows if there is hereditary disease or if there is sexually transmissible disease.., the tendency to provide both prenatal and postnatal care for mothers, so that mothers and babies (get) the kind of nutrition they need…In some cases it was the eradication of endemic diseases…7

Professor Levine mentions the particular case we’re interested in:

And in places like Hong Kong and India it becomes birth control practice. Because you have places that have very large populations, they want to limit that population so that they have enough to go around.

So what we see is active birth control mechanisms being put into place, not compulsory ones, but just the availability and access to family planning…8

And as for the apparent paradox of a left-winger like Mrs Selwyn-Clarke being part of a movement that’s often see not only as racist but as opposed to the interests of the poor, where of course most of the ‘bad’ genes were thought to reside, here’s Levine again:

What’s fascinating is that you have supporters and opponents everywhere on the political spectrum… {left-wingers like} George Bernard Shaw and Margaret Sanger were eugenicists….You can’t pigeonhole it. You can’t classify it.9

Left-wing eugenicists don’t always sound any better than right wing ones. Here’s one of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke’s associates, the communist-leaning American journalist Edgar Snow:

I’m almost inclined to think eugenics is perhaps the only thing that will save the next generation from dominantly Negro, low class immigrant, or intelligence quota x or y.10

Even given that ‘negro’ was not necessarily meant as insulting, this is still pretty unpleasant in its apparent assumption that ‘white’ people already in America were the repositories of the best ‘genes for intelligence’. And I’ll have more to say about one of Levine’s examples of leftist eugenicists, Margaret Sanger, although she seems to have abandoned much of her earlier political radicalism by the time she brought the eugenics message to Hong Kong in 1936.

However, it needs to be emphasised that the activities of the Hong Kong Eugenics League, both before and after Mrs Selwyn-Clarke became involved in spring 1938, consisted of one thing only: offering advice and treatment to those women who freely chose to ‘plan’ their families. In the case of the poorest of these women, they provided their services free. There is no indication in the sources I’ve consulted of any interest in sterilisation or euthanasia. In other words what needs explanation, of the kind I’ve been briefly offering, is Hilda Selwyn-Clarke’s willingness to work under the ‘eugenics’ banner, bot any involvement in dubious or obnoxious practices, because there’s no evidence of anything of the kind.

4Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, Footprints, 1975, 54.
10Bernard Thomas, Season of High Adventure, 1996, Chapter 6, note 35.



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2 responses to “Hilda Selwyn-Clarke and the Hong Kong Eugenics League (1): Introduction

  1. Pingback: Pre-war Hong Kong: The Myth of Mediocrity (Part 3): Eleventh Rate Women | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  2. Harland

    It’s sad that the Left has successfully perpetrated the lie that eugenics was a right-wing idea. How do educated people not know this? Margaret Sanger was a solid leftist who would we welcomed to write for The Guardian or Mother Jones anyday.

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