This follows on from Robert Browning’s courting of Elizabeth Barrett, an invalid likely to produce an invalid child. On the other hand, had there been testing for potential diseases and disabilities, would – should – Robert Louis Stevenson have been allowed to live? Chesterton knew his answer. (RLS was born this day in 1850)
What is the good of telling people that if they marry for love, they may be punished by being the parents of Keats or the parents of Stevenson? Keats died young; but he had more pleasure in a minute than a Eugenist gets in a month. Stevenson had lung-trouble; and it may, for all I know, have been perceptible to the Eugenic eye even a generation before. But who would perform that illegal operation: the stopping of Stevenson?
Intercepting a letter bursting with good news, confiscating a hamper full of presents and prizes, pouring torrents of intoxicating wine into the sea, all this is a faint approximation for the Eugenic inaction of the ancestors of Stevenson. This, however, is not the essential point; with Stevenson it is not merely a case of the pleasure we get, but of the pleasure he got. If he had died without writing a line, he would have had more red-hot joy than is given to most men. Shall I say of him, to whom I owe so much, let the day perish wherein he was born? Shall I pray that the stars of the twilight thereof be dark and it be not numbered among the days of the year, because it shut not up the doors of his mother’s womb? I respectfully decline; like Job, I will put my hand upon my mouth.
from “Eugenics and Other Evils” by Gilbert Keith Chesterton.
GKC took the writers Keats and Stevenson as examples of the unhealthy humans that the Eugenicists of his day would have aborted but it was illegal. As for today … I only have to think of our bridesmaids, now departed, who lived a full life with Down’s syndrome, to know how wrong it would have been to prevent their birth; and also the men who were locked away in ‘subnormality hospitals’, yet came out and contributed greatly to the founding of L’Arche Kent.
Stevenson, author of Treasure Island and much more, after years of illness and travelling to find a cure for his lung condition, died in Samoa aged 44 in 1894, where he was buried with this epitaph:
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
the hunter home from the hill.