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January 29, 1pm-2.30pm, Room B35, Birkbeck, University of London, Malet Street, WC1E7HX
‘Lives unworthy of life? Disability pride versus eugenics’


Talk by Prof. Tom Shakespeare FBA - with introductions from Prof. David Feldman, Director of the Pears Institute for the Study of antisemitism and David Ruebain, Visiting Professor of Birkbeck School of Law 















Discussion of the international eugenics movement before and after 1900, and the euthanasia it resulted in during the Nazi regime.   Norbert Elias authored The Civilising Process in 1939.  By 1941, his own mother was murdered in the Holocaust.  How can we combat hate crime and antisocial attacks on disabled people today?   What does society require in order to maintain civilisation?

Tom Shakespeare is Professor of Disability research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.  His books include Genetic Politics: from eugenics to genome, and he is a co-author of the World Report on Disability (WHO 2011).   In 2019, he co-authored a report on bioethics for the UN Special Rapporteur on Disability.


Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, University of London

Birkbeck Disabled Staff Network

Birkbeck School of Law 

Reflections on event...

Prof. David Feldman, Director of the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism commented: "It was terrific to have a full lecture theatre to hear Tom Shakespeare's crystal clear, wide-ranging and compelling talk. It was excellent, covering not only the history of Nazi mass murder but also the connections and disconnections between now and then, and the politics of disability in the present."


Prof. Daniel Monk from Birkbeck School of Law commented, "The lecture by Tom Shakespeare, whose work has and continues to be essential for anyone thinking about the politics of disability, was immensely powerful. Beginning with the history of eugenics as a widely supported body of ideas (not all negative) he moved to describe the harrowing genocidal policies it resulted in under the Nazi regime. His concluding analysis of the complex contemporary debates about disability and the termination of pregnancies demonstrated the necessity for ethical thinking that acknowledges both change and continuity."


Dr. Rebecca Gumbrell-McCormick, convenor of the Birkbeck Staff Disability Network commented: "Prof. Tom Shakespeare's talk was a deeply moving and thought- provoking exploration of the origins of the eugenics movement, its apogee in the policies of Nazi Germany, and its long after-life in the treatment of disabled people and other 'undesirables' up to the present day. It highlighted the common ground in all forms of discrimination, xenophobia and racism, which treat particular groups as 'others' and bit by bit de-humanise them. It points to the urgency of working together today to combat discrimination and racism in all their forms.”


Barney O’Connor, Birkbeck Student Union Officer commented: "The event 'Lives unworthy of life? Disability pride versus eugenics' Was not just informative and thought-provoking, but it was deeply emotional due to the talk given by Prof Tom Shakespeare. People with disabilities are not a burden on society. We are not 'Lives unworthy of life.' From the atrocities carried out under the Nazi regime in Germany, to modern-day Britain. Where its almost seen as the default that a termination should occur if Down Syndrome is diagnosed.

Has our understanding of what equals a worthy life changed?"


Mike Higgins, HR Policy Manager at UCL said: "A very thought provoking lecture, which reinforced for me the importance of ensuring that we continually educate ourselves and one another about the ongoing sinister and current powerful legacy of eugenicist theory and its practical implications today.  It is about the deliberate and conscious removal from society of anyone believed to be 'inferior' by those who wish to perpetuate the myth that some people shouldn't be born at all or should be prevented from living, solely on the grounds of their gender, ethnicity or impairment.  The need to celebrate difference rather than tolerate it was really brought home to me by this event."


Subhadra Das, Curator of the Galton Collection at UCL said: "It was an excellent event and a great way to start the important series."


Podcast of this event can be found at the following link. 

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