Eugenics: We can learn from history

Jeane Anastas, Ph.D., LMSWFrom the President

Social work was in the news late in 2011 when stories about efforts to compensate people in North Carolina who had undergone involuntary sterilization into the 1970s aired on a “Rock Center with Brian Williams” segment called “State of Shame” and appeared in the New York Times.

Uniquely in North Carolina, it was state-employed social workers who decided which people — generally poor or in care as “impaired,” often African-American and more often women — would undergo these procedures. Based on interviews conducted in 1997, the recorded voices of social workers involved in carrying out this state policy were heard in the “State of Shame” broadcast, which understandably drew a reaction from our membership.

Such policies and practices were informed in part by eugenic beliefs that the less “fit” —meaning poor, infirm or otherwise “less desirable” — people, should not reproduce in order to reduce the burden of care and expense that others (the taxpayers) would bear. The state of North Carolina has just decided to compensate those who were victimized by this policy, which was described as the most far-reaching among the laws in the 31 states that had them.

While eugenics has had a “bad name” since the Nazi atrocities in World War II, social work’s history, like that of psychology, psychiatry and medicine, is deeply entwined with this once-respectable science. It is only by facing and reflecting on this history that we can avoid similar mistakes now and in the future.

Eugenics, championed by late 19th - and early 20th-century scientists — including statisticians like Francis Galton, whose technical work we continue to rely on today — was once seen as a respectable method for reducing poverty. It has been documented that Jane Addams of the settlement movement and Mary Richmond of casework both believed in eugenics as a way to reduce poverty over time. Margaret Sanger, who championed access to contraception and women’s ability to control their own reproduction, also believed in eugenics, or the betterment of society as a whole through limiting reproduction among the poor and “less fit.” This belief, of course, conflates the pernicious effects of poverty and social exclusion on health and well-being with its causes.

While most know that eugenics was considered good science and flourished before World War II in the United States, fewer know that it had many proponents for decades after, even though they condemned extermination strategies as “going too far.” History in North Carolina painfully reminds us of this fact. What began with a concern about poor whites and “the feebleminded” later targeted black women with “illegitimate” children.

NASW officials in 1957 agreed to provide member mailing labels to the Human Betterment Association (the leading eugenics group) for an education campaign promoting eugenics to health and social welfare workers, but a second request for member mailing labels in 1961 was unanimously denied by the NASW board. Today we have many ethical and practice standards in place that should prevent social work involvement in involuntary sterilizations.

We must not delude ourselves, however, that these issues are things of the past. Many clients served by social workers have historically been disproportionately affected by policies that seek to limit their reproductive freedom (see TANF and pregnancy) or limit choices about it (see federal policies on funding for abortions for poor women). Social work scholars have identified prenatal sex selection, access to reproductive health care for people identified as disabled, and implications of the decoding of the human genome as areas of contemporary concern that can involve social biases with roots in eugenic thinking.

Our profession must embrace critical thinking when it comes to policies and practices related to reproduction specifically and vulnerable groups more generally. History lives on, often uncomfortably, but if we are able to reflect honestly on it we can bend the curve toward human rights.