Social Work and Eugenics

It seems that every few months another painful chapter in our nation’s history is unearthed by the national media.

A recent MSNBC report on involuntary sterilization in North Carolina by medical correspondent Dr. Nancy Snyderman was a sobering reminder for American social workers about how close we are to our country’s complicated and discriminatory past. 

Snyderman’s November 7, 2011 segment on Rock Center with Brian Williams told the story of forced operations in the 1960s and 1970s on thousands of young, generally poor—and frequently minority—women in North Carolina and 30 other states. 

Specifically, the disturbing story of Elaine Riddick in “State of Shame,” a woman sterilized after giving birth to a child conceived in a rape, sent shockwaves across blogs, websites and other social media.

But perhaps most alarming was the audiotape played during the segment in which social workers discuss their recommendation to have another young mother with multiple children sterilized. Social workers and members of the public expressed disbelief that such a program could still be in operation during the height of the civil rights and women’s rights movement in the United States.

In May 2011, NASW staff spoke with freelance journalist Kevin Begos about his three-part Independent Weekly investigative series on the American eugenics movement after World War II. 

Begos had called to get comment on his discovery that NASW officials in 1957 had agreed to provide mailing labels to the Human Betterment Association (the leading eugenics group) for an education campaign with health and social welfare providers. While the first mailing did happen, we were also able to confirm that another request in 1961 for member mailing labels was unanimously denied by the NASW Board.

The eugenics movement officially began in the late 19th century, reached it first zenith in the 1920’s and 1930’s, fell out of favor during WWII, and then made a comeback in the 1950’s. The history of the movement is inextricably linked to society’s conflicted views about women’s reproductive rights, poverty reduction and social class.

As early social workers researched and developed programs to provide solutions to alleviate American social ills, and encouraged greater investment in the social safety net, long held beliefs about the capacity of poor, mentally ill and other social “outsiders” colored a variety of government policies and the medical establishment. 

Considerable literature is now available to help explain the mores and politics governing the nation’s acceptance and control of women’s reproductive rights in the last century.

For example, the policy and practice of sterilizing women perceived as overly sexual in their behavior has descendents in policies to address and regulate the behavior of women in what Michigan State Social Work Professor Angie Kennedy calls “the reproductive underclass.” Her article about eugenics and social work in the February 2008 issue of Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work is worth reading.   

It is essential that social workers and others educate themselves about this history to understand where modern discussions of genetic testing and other advanced technologies might lead.   Berkeley statistics professor Deborah Dolan in the Journal of Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry (2007 v. 9, n. 2) wrote that therapeutic fields need four prevention strategies to avoid involvement in problematic practices of this kind in the future:

  • General cultural remembrance of the involvement of health care professionals in violating basic rights of individuals in service to society or the state
  • Continuing education in applied ethics and the history and philosophy of science and medicine
  • Creating and maintaining a professional culture of questioning attitudes and policies both within and outside of the professions
  • Enhancing the reflection on the role of values and ideologies with social work and other health professionals-in-training

Today, the social work profession vigorously incorporates cultural competence values and knowledge into its core public policies, academic curricula and practice standards.  

A few examples include:

1)      NASW Standards for Cultural Competence in Social Work Practice

2)      Indicators for the Achievement of the NASW Standards of Cultural Competence in Social Work Practice

3)      Social Work Speaks, NASW Policy Statements 2009-2012

We must remain vigilant.

Dr. Jeane Anastas
NASW President


  1. Stephanie Lester

    Eugenics has roots in sexism, racism and oppression of women, especially women from marginalized backgrounds. It focuses on limiting reproduction of less desirable individuals. I was appalled by the woman who was sterilized after being rapped. NASW would focus on the ethical treatment of individuals, this was definitely not ethical treatment. This is why Social Workers roles as agents of change is so important. As they can help implement policies to protect women from these unethical practices. The women’s rights to have control over their bodies and reproductive rights has gone on for an extremely long time. Even now women’s right to choose the fate of her reproductive rights is still a point of uncertainty. As stated it is essential that social workers and others keep themselves educated and knowledgeable about eugenics. There should also be an awareness of genetic testing presently and what possible repercussions can come of it.

  2. It is helpful to see eugenics and its association with social work brought into discussion. The dangers and – through our post 2WW eyes – appalling demography and morality of much eugenics is well noted. However, there is a serious difficulty with this posting. It treats eugenics in much too homogenous a way. First, we need to understand how eugenics became seen in the earlier part of the last century as a progressive movement, and at least in parts of the movement, a badge of scientific respectability. It was ‘Darwin’s polymathic cousin Francis Galton came up with eugenic in 1883; the politics of Social Darwinism were made respectable by means of a handsome Greek name’ (Hitchings, H. 2008. The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English London: John Murray. It certainly had some association with the development of forms of statistical testing through e.g. Karl Pearson. I have discussed some of this in Social Work Science (Columbia UP 2016 Ch 3 and 5). It had a further association with the borders of social work and sociology through F Stuart Chapin. Perhaps the main difficulty with this blog posting is that it treats eugenics in an almost wholly a-historical way. This means that the debates within eugenics and the rise of the reform wing of eugenics are not understood in social work. Richard Titmuss’ profoundly important writings that shaped the British Welfare State and have ongoing influence even in parts of the world where he is no longer read, were deeply influenced by reform eugenics. Thus, through parts of our taken for granted assumptions, so are we.

  3. I’m proud of the fact that NASW’s Code of Ethics begins with our responsibility to the client and in 1.2 “The client’s right to self-determination”. This is unique to our profession and central to the concept of “patient and family-centered care”. I agree we need to be vigilant in protecting the rights of individuals regardless of what we call it: “eugenics”, “racism”, “discrimination”, etc.

  4. Why are we still not calling it what it is; racism and discrimination. I do realize that by calling it something else makes it a little easier to digest. But, the truth is racism hides behind so many labels and we allow it everytime we choose to do nothing or ignore it. Racism isn’t just a social-ill that happened in the 1960’s. It happens now. So, the next time you find yourself intertwined in policies covering areas of Medicine, Education, Employment,and even Law Enforcement, dare to look beyond the surface. In order to solve the problem, we must first identify it…(practice 101).

    • Eugenics ought not be conflated with racism. While racism was certainly often a factor, so were classism, sexism and ableism, amongst other -isms. While it is vital to recognize the role of racial discrimination, to reduce it to racism misses a large proportion of the horror.

    • Thank you for making this very valuable point Mr. Davis.

  5. Thanks, Jeane, for posting this important information. Social workers might be interested, too, in Tony Platt and Amy LaPan’s article, “‘To Stem the Tide of Degeneracy’: The Eugenic Impulse in Social Work” in Stuart Kirk’s book, Mental Disorders in the Social environment: Critical Perspectives.

    • Stephanie Lester

      Thank you for posting other readings that relate to this article. I am interested in learning more about issues surrounding eugenics and how to avoid future occurrences of such unethical practices.

  6. when we know better we should take action to do better.America has a horrible history on facing social ills, and eugenics is just as bad as slavery. For one group to think they know what is best for other humans is a toxic histoy which we continue to relieve daily.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.