Department of History of Science and Ideas

Keynote Lecture and Speaker

Susanne M. Klausen (about the keynote speaker): "Contesting Eugenic Abortion: Transnational Feminism, Eugenics and the Legacy of the Thalidomide Tragedy in the Ongoing Struggle for Women’s Reproductive Freedom"

Keynote Lecture Abstract

For much of the twentieth century feminist movements in numerous Western countries advocated eugenic abortion and in doing so helped win public and state support for accessible abortion services. For many decades feminists’ insistence on the right to terminate foetuses deemed somehow damaged or “abnormal” went largely unchallenged but today the morality of that stance is in question. As the disability rights movement wins increasing recognition from social justice organizations and governments, the demand for respect for the rights of people with disabilities has increasingly been framed in opposition to feminists’ position that women have the absolute right to control their fertility. The ostensible conflict between disability rights and women’s rights in public policy debates about abortion provokes numerous pressing political and ethical questions including, does the feminist demand for accessible abortion necessarily conflict with the rights of people with disabilities? And, to what extent has criticism of abortion on grounds of disability become instrumentalized by social conservatives opposing women’s social autonomy? Susanne M. Klausen seeks to historicize this tension by examining Western feminisms’ advocacy of eugenic abortion during the twentieth century. Themes will include feminists’ transnational approach to activism on the issue and the disparate ideas motivating them, ranging from the troubling belief that the lives of people with disabilities were not worth living to the conviction that women should have the option to avoid raising disabled children for social reasons such as financial hardship. The lecture’s focus will be the British Abortion Law Reform Association’s (ALRA) campaign to win political support for inclusion of a eugenic clause in the UK’s Abortion Act (1967) and the international impact of their success. The presentation will emphasize the profound importance of the thalidomide catastrophe to ALRA’s achievement and scrutinize the transnational nature of their campaign; the rapidity with which the eugenic clause was adopted, often verbatim, in abortion legislation passed in many other countries after 1967; and the support ALRA provided to movements for abortion law reform around the world inspired by the UK’s passage of the 1967 Abortion Act.

About the Keynote Speaker

Susanne M. Klausen is Professor of History at Carleton University, Ottawa, and Senior Research Associate in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Johannesburg. She has published numerous essays and two monographs pertaining to the history and politics of fertility control in South Africa, Canada and New Zealand. Her most recent book is the multi-prize-winning study of abortion in modern South Africa, Abortion Under Apartheid: Nationalism, Sexuality, and Women’s Reproductive Rights in South Africa (Oxford University Press, 2015).