Social Work and Eugenics

Nov 22, 2011

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

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