Eugenics in the Philippines – Around the World Eugenics Archives

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Eugenics in the Philippines – Around the World Eugenics Archives

Florentino Rodao


Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Conseil de recherches en sciences humaines du Canada


The Philippines Islands were under colonial rule when eugenic ideas began to spread. These ideas were used both by those arguing for the continuation of empire and those fighting for independence. After the Philippines transferred from Spanish to US colonial rule, the eugenic debate re-emerged by those favouring colonial rule and those seeking Filipino self-government. After independence was achieved in 1946, eugenic ideas continued to be used for various domestic purposes. Eugenics, in the Philippines, is a clear example of its resilience and malleability as an idea and practice, appropriated by different parties sometimes with opposing objectives.

The concept of eugenics arose in the midst of an important wave of migration to the Islands, at a time when Spain was vainly attempting to re-legitimize its domination while an elite group, the so-called Ilustrados, was devoted to increasing national consciousness. The Ilustrados consisted of mestizos of either Filipino-Spanish or Filipino-Chinese descent who believed colonialism was an obstacle to their national ambitions. In the dispute, both groups used eugenics to bolster their claims. One of the most well-known Spanish, settler Pablo Feced, or Quioquiap, used “Eugenics” for the first time in a Philippines-based publication. In 1886, Feced published a book arguing that the Philippines were “useful”—that is, ready for economic exploitation by Spaniards and not only for the salvation of heathens, as argued for centuries by missionaries (Feced, 1886). Feced had a very vague idea of the meaning of eugenics, but he used it as an argument to support a civilizing mission that coincided with the arrival of new Spanish settlers, realizing its usefulness to justify Spanish colonization.

His Filipino adversaries, like national leader Jose Rizal, criticized Feced for his racism and for his shallow knowledge of the Philippines, but not for using eugenics-related terms. In fact, although they did not use the term eugenics, Filipino nationalists saw the promotion of medicine and health as favouring the Philippines and offered praise when Spain established measures aimed at improving sanitation on the islands. Filipino nationalists (like Cuban nationalists at the same time) rejected Spanish claims of racial supremacy. They wrote some of the first criticisms of racism, placing nationalism above racial differences; however, they also supported eugenics-related ideas dealing with hygiene and the body. As in the Dutch East Indies, physicians and biological scientists were among the first generation of nationalists who co-mingled science with modernity to develop their own concept of eugenics (Anderson and Pols, 2012).



After the Spanish-American War of 1898, the United States—the new imperial power—radically changed the role of eugenics. This change was highlighted in the aftermath of the Philippine-American War (1899-1902) with the United States developing new racial discourses including the proselytism of hygiene and promising to transform the archipelago into a vast laboratory (Anderson 2006; 2007). Being more “progressive” and interventionist, the United States established wider separation between populations of different races. As such, the discourse against concubinage and miscegenation was represented as the paramount danger to health and racial purity. For instance white elites searched for white women as caretakers for their offspring because interactions with the Filipino population or people of “inferior races” became socially unacceptable (Holt 2002). Eugenic ideas inspired the US Congress to deem Filipinos as “unalterably Asian” in the Philippines Autonomy Act, known as Jones Law (1916). At the same time, American rule shared continuities with Spaniards. Westerners who acquired a kind of Philippine manners after having lived for a long time in the islands were considered under both regimes as a kind of “degenerate,” termed during Spanish times as “chifladura” (craziness) and later “dementia Americana” (Cañamaque, 1877; Holt, 2002).

For Filipinos desiring independence, eugenics and science-related practices were used as anticolonial tools. Some believed that through hygienic discipline, Filipinos could anticipate the promised independence from the United States. Meanwhile, ideas of modern education and racial degeneration were embedded in discussions about potential benefits of teaching domestic economy, modern economy and physical education. Modernizing women, for example, were determined to spread new scientific knowledge about how to diminish infant mortality by rejecting traditional forms of care-giving (Holt, 2001). Filomin C. Gutierrez points to two criminologists as the most outstanding examples of helping in building national consciousness through scientific knowledge, Ignacio Villamor, the first Filipino president of the University of the Philippines, and Sixto de los Angeles, a scholar physician at the same university who authored the book Legal Medicine (1934), the main reference about the topic in the Philippines. Villamor studied criminal acts in the Philippines, taking notice of biological factors but pointing also to the compounding influence of the social environment.

Echoing Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso’s empiricism and the views of scholars of the eugenics movement, on his side, De los Angeles insisted on the need to monitor the quality of a population “for a full, progressive, and happy nationhood” (De Los Angeles, 1934), but also advocated for indigenizing scientific traditions that had originated overseas (Gutierrez, 2010). After independence in 1946, eugenics endured through population control policies in the Philippines as is the case in other southeast Asian countries. Although the Catholic Church has played a key role, they tended to emphasize the hereditary incapability of indigenous populations and favoured Christian settling in the Muslim south as a way to balance the population as well as social classes assumptions (Connelly, 2008; Amrith, 2010; McKenna, 1998).

Eugenics in the Philippines shows the different ways science-related ideas have played in both colonialism and anticolonial struggle. It also demonstrates how eugenics came to embody different aims and practices, from social hygiene to race biology, and from maternal care to prenatal health. The peculiarity of being under two colonizers with a very different scientific discourse enhanced the role of eugenics in the Philippines; however, its impact still needs further study, especially the many similarities between both with Southeast Asia and Latin America.




Amrith, S. (2010). Eugenics in Post-Colonial Southeast Asia. In A. Bashford, & P. Levine (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics, (301-314).
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Anderson, W. & Pols, H. (2012). Scientific Patriotism. Medical Science and National Self-Fashioning in Southeast Asia. Comparative Studies in Society and History 2012, 54(1): 93–113.
Anderson, W. (2007). Science in the Philippines. Philippine Studies, 55: 287-318.
Anderson, W. (2009). Pacific Crossings: Imperial Logics in United States’ Public Health Programs. In A. W. McCoy, & F. Scarano (Eds.), Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State, (277-288). Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.
Cañamaque y Jiménez, F. (1877). Recuerdos de Filipinas: cosas, casos y usos de aquellas islas: vistos, oídos, tocados y contados Vol. I. Madrid: Librería de Anillo y Rodríguez.
Connelly, M. (2008). Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
De Los Angeles, S. (1934). Legal Medicine. Manila: Pobre Press.
Feced, P. (1886). Esbozos y pinceladas. Manila: Ramírez y Compañía.
Gutierrez, F.C. (2013). The Influence of Cesare Lombroso on Philippine Criminology. In P. Knepper, & P. J. Ystehede (Eds.), The Cesare Lombroso Handbook. London & New York: Routledge.
Holt, E.M. (2002). Colonizing Filipinas. Nineteenth-Century Representations of the Philippines in Western Historiography. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.
McKenna, T. (1988). Muslim Rulers and Rebels: Everyday Politics and Armed Separatism in the Southern Philippines. Berkeley: University California Press

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