There used to be one issue which all ethicists condemned — eugenics.
Even today, the horrors of state-sponsored eugenics are vivid – the Nazi extermination of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs and disabled people or the sterilisation of the “feeble-minded” in the US, Canada, Sweden and elsewhere.
However, rebadged as “liberal eugenics”, this philosophy is making a comeback. Some bioethicists argue that parents ought to be able to give their children a head start in life. An Australian who teaches at Oxford University in the UK, Julian Savulescu, makes a strong case for “designer babies”.
“When the science of genetics allows us to choose between the range of children that we could have, between those that will have better lives for themselves and be better functioning members of society, we ought to select those embryos rather than just tossing a coin.”
How would parents actually react to this power if they had it? In the current state of science, it’s not possible to produce bespoke children. But a 90-year-old tragedy in Spain allows us to predict what might happen to some of those designer babies.
In the years before its 1936-39 Civil War, Spain was impoverished materially, but intellectually it was a ferment of modern ideas and ideologies. Eugenics had an enthusiastic following. One woman took it so seriously that she literally was driven mad by her passion for perfecting the human race. She created the perfect offspring – and then murdered her.
This dark tale about a feminist avatar of the Greek sculptor Pygmalion is being dramatised by a Spanish affiliate of Amazon Prime. “Hildegart”, directed by Paula Ortiz, stars Najwa Nimri and Alba Planas as Aurora and Hildegart. It is being promoted as a blend of “historical drama, romance, thriller and a touch of true crime”.
Aurora, the mother, was born in 1879, the daughter of a prominent liberal politician and Freemason in Madrid. A feminist and socialist, she became obsessed with creating an ideal child. She planned to create “the most perfect woman who, as a human statue, was the canon, the measure of humanity and the final redeemer”. Disgusted by the thought of marriage, she sought out a “physiological collaborator” to create a baby. She eventually found a brainy man who could never claim the child – a military chaplain (who turned out to be a child abuser). The daughter, Hildegart Leocadia Georgina Hermenegilda María del Pilar Rodríguez Carballeira, was born in 1914. (“Hildegart”, Aurora believed, meant garden of wisdom.)
By the time Hildegart was two, she was reading; at three she could hold a pen and write a letter; and at four she could type and play the piano. By the time she was ten, she spoke German, French, English, Italian, Portuguese and Latin as well as Spanish. She started her university studies at 13. At 14 she embarked upon a career as a propagandist for women’s rights.
Her mother had tutored her in feminism and Hildegart wrote scores of articles and essays about sexual and social reform. The media called the teenage prodigy La virgen roja, the Red virgin. She became the secretary of the Spanish branch of the World League for Sexual Reform, whose president was a luminary of the Spanish intelligentsia, Dr Gregorio Marañón. (Marañón was also a pioneer of eugenics.) Hildegart’s pamphlet on contraception sold out in a week.
She was even befriended by some of the most prominent sexologists in Europe, including Havelock Ellis and Magnus Hirschfeld. The English novelist and science writer H.G. Wells invited her to work with him in London – which upset Aurora, who thought that he was trying to recruit her for the British secret service. She must also have been aware of his reputation as a shameless sexual predator.
Hildegart gradually became estranged from her mother. She had become romantically involved with a young socialist and was becoming more sceptical of conventional Marxism. In 1932 she wrote an essay, “Was Marx mistaken? Has Socialism failed?” (¿Se equivocó Marx…? ¿Fracasa el socialismo?)
Najwa Nimri, and Alba Planas play Aurora and Hildegart in a Spanish film produced by Amazon
Aurora was bitterly disappointed. She complained that she had brought her daughter into the world to better the condition of women, not to waste her time in politics.
The climax of the family conflict came on June 9, 1933. Aurora took a revolver and shot her daughter three times in the head and once in the chest while she slept. She then gave herself up to the police. She expressed no remorse. According to a newspaper report of the trial:
“Proclaiming passionate love for her daughter, she insisted she had good reason for shooting her, and would do so again a thousand times in the same circumstances, as she was “called to reform the world by new eugenic methods’”.
“The sculptor, after discovering the most minimal imperfection in his work, destroys it,” she explained.
There was no question about whether or not Aurora had committed the crime. The jury had only to decide whether she was mad or bad. Mad it was. She died in a psychiatric hospital in 1955.
Is there a moral to this bizarre story? Perhaps that Pygmalions can be reluctant to accept imperfections in their creations. Commercial surrogacy, for instance, is a kind of primitive eugenics, with the commissioning parents expecting perfect babies. Stories abound of infants who were abandoned after they were born with defects.
The tragedy of Aurora and Hildegart shows the dark side of manufacturing human beings. Some Pygmalions are bound to be corrupt, possessive tyrants. Assisted reproductive technology gives parents (and doctors) the illusion that since they created a child, they have a proprietary right over their existence. It’s probably a very good reason for continuing to ban eugenics, even “liberal eugenics”.
It goes without saying that Aurora and Hildegart were implacably hostile to Christianity. A pity that, because they would have known that the divine Pygmalion respects the freedom of his Galateas, even when they betray him. For human Pygmalions, though, an imperfect Galatea is just defective stone waiting to be smashed to pieces.
Michael Cook is editor of Mercator.
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