In the early twentieth century, the eugenics movement won many supporters with its promise that social ills such as venereal disease, alcoholism, and so-called feeble-mindedness, along with many other conditions, could be eliminated by selective human breeding and other measures. The provinces of Alberta and British Columbia passed legislation requiring that certain “unfit” individuals undergo reproductive sterilization. Ontario, being home to many leading proponents of eugenics, came close to doing the same.
In the Public Good examines three legal processes that were used to advance eugenic ideas in Ontario between 1910 and 1938: legislative bills, provincial royal commissions, and the criminal trial of a young woman accused of distributing birth control information. Taken together, they reveal who in the province supported these ideas, how they were understood in relation to the public good, and how they were debated. Elizabeth Koester shows the ways in which the law was used both to promote and to deflect eugenics, and how the concept of the public good was used by supporters to add power to their cause.
With eugenic thinking finding new footholds in the possibilities offered by reproductive technologies, proposals to link welfare entitlement to “voluntary” sterilization, and concerns about immigration, In the Public Good adds depth to our understanding. Its exploration of the historical relationship between eugenics and law in Ontario prepares us to face the implications of “newgenics” today.
About the author
C. Elizabeth Koester, a former practising lawyer, is a historian of eugenics and medicine at the University of Toronto.
"Studies of eugenics in Canada have primarily focused on Alberta and British Columbia. Koester convincingly demonstrates that eugenic enthusiasm and activity was also robust in Ontario, thus contributing to both the history of Canadian eugenics and to wider debates over how best to assess eugenics' popularity." Diane B. Paul, University of Massachusetts Boston
"In the Public Good challenges narrow views of the role of law in Canada's eugenic project by addressing different ways that legal institutions and norms were brought to bear on social problems." Eric H. Reiter, Concordia University and author of Wounded Feelings: Litigating Emotions in Quebec, 1870-1950