Eugenics, Genetics, and the Minority Group Model of Disabilities: Implications for Social Work Advocacy

Article excerpt

The recent expansion and practical application of genetic research has fostered--depending on one s perception--utopian dreams of a world without disability or dystopian nightmares of a world that is both largely devoid and highly contemptuous of people with disabilities. As professionals, social workers play an integral role in both implementation of genetic research and facilitation of the inclusion of people with disabilities within the community. Not only genetic counseling, but other forms of individual and family treatment are certain to be more greatly affected by genetic research and public policies related to it in the near future. Moreover, social work professionals from a broad range of backgrounds must be involved in policy discussions and development relevant to these bioethical concerns. In regard to advocacy, little explication needs to be given that advocacy is an important element of social work and that this issue arises particularly in regard to potentially vulnerable or historically maltreated groups, such as people with disabilities.

To understand the professional role of social workers within the context of a "new world" of genetics, social workers should be aware of important historical precursors, especially the eugenic alarm period of the early 20th century. Although many in the profession may be familiar with the basic elements of eugenic control, the relevance of this historical information is not only instructive, but also essential to anyone who seeks to engage in discussions related to the current or future application of genetic research. In addition, professionals must understand that although the medical model may seem to be the most apt approach for viewing relevant issues, other frames of reference exist. Also important is the social or minority group model of disability. I describe the impact of historical eugenics on contemporary genetics and the role of the social model of disabilities within the context of these contemporary issues, and I discuss implications for social workers, especially as they attempt to consider the need to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities in the face of these innovations.


With roots in the 19th century, the eugenics movement emerged as a major social force in the United States following the 1900 rediscovery of Mendel's laws of inheritance. Based largely on the writings of England's Sir Francis Galton (1870, 1907), the movement held that the human species could be improved through the systematic control of breeding practices. Eugenicists argued that if a nation developed methods to ensure that those with desired characteristics bred in greater numbers (termed "positive eugenics") while at the same time diminishing the breeding of those with undesirable characteristics (termed "negative eugenics"), the species would be improved (Kevles, 1985).

In the United States, early eugenics was inextricably connected to care and treatment of those who were diagnosed as "feeble-minded" (O'Brien, 1999; Smith, 1985; Trent, 1994). Development of the intelligence test shortly after the turn of the century allowed for the "scientific" delineation of the feebleminded element of the population. These people, and particularly "morons," were believed to be the nucleus from which a wide range of social evils emanated (Davenport, 1913; Goddard, 1914).

The primary methods of eugenic control included forced institutionalization and involuntary sterilization. The placement of morons in segregated institutions, eugenicists said, would forestall their procreative opportunities. Many eugenic advocates favored sterilization as a method of control because it was less expensive and, thus, more economically feasible than institutionalization (Reilly, 1991). During the first quarter of the century, tens of thousands of people who were diagnosed as feebleminded or insane would be institutionalized, sterilized, or both for eugenic purposes. …