The Eugenics Movement in Australasia V: The Fate of the Social Movement after World War II

National politics, Racial politics, Regional History, Social History, Society & Culture

BMA building, Sydney
BMA building, Sydney
Decline of eugenics in Australasia
Unlike the US the eugenics movements in Australasia failed to even make legislative inroads, let alone implement their theories with any measure of success. Mandatory sterilisation did have genuine community support – from eugenicists, the medical profession, the health bureaucracy, racial hygiene and feminist organisations – but its extreme agenda did not secure the acquiescence of the general public behind it. Moreover, Claudia Thame concluded in her 1974 paper that only a “small minority of zealots” in Australia (some members of the BMA – British Medical Association) held an extreme position on sterilisation[1]. Most practitioners of eugenics in the country tended towards the segregation approach.

Eugenics ideas continued to have some credence after World War II – although not legislated by state authorities, sterilisations continued to be performed on the disabled, especially those with an intellectual disability. Commonly in rural Australia this was done without proper consent (or only with the consent of a third party). Girls from impoverished backgrounds unfortunate enough to be chosen for sterilisation often were told they were having appendectomies. In an era of deinstitutionalisation the eugenic motive for sterilisation tended to be overridden by that of contraception. It was an easier alternative for medical authorities to resort to hysterectomies and tubal ligations than to spend money on educating disadvantaged parents on how to handle their children’s sexuality[2]. There remains a continuity with present practices❃.

1928 Mental Defectives Bill: New Zealand
1928 Mental Defectives Bill: New Zealand
In New Zealand the 1928 Mental Defectives Amendment Bill was the eugenicists’ best legislative hope for Aeotearoa. It provided for the establishment of a national eugenics board and its sterilisation clauses came close to being law but failed to pass due to a combination of government doubts about the public support for sterilisation and the concerted political opposition to it from Peter Fraser and the Labour Party and intellectuals like university professors Thomas Hunter and Arthur Fitt[3]. Subsequently, the Act’s provision for the registration of mental ‘defectives’ was pursued by the state “without enthusiasm or notable result”[4].

As with Australia and other western countries the lack of legislative support for sterilisation did not prevent its continued ad hoc practice in NZ. Data on involuntary sterilisations of the disabled in postwar New Zealand is sketchy but the numbers of women involved are thought to be significant … like elsewhere, the eugenic motives of the prewar period have a diminished importance, in their place the demand for sterilisation is driven by the priority of managing the sexuality and reproductive capacity of disabled girls and women (also as “an adjunct to the management of bodily hygiene”)[5].

Many churches went along with the eugenics orthodoxy and some Protestant clergymen actually advocated eugenics✥. The Catholic Church however, with its large Irish-Catholic working class following in Australia as well as New Zealand, staunchly opposed eugenics on theological (moral) grounds (the Vatican condemned artificial methods of birth control which interfered with “natural reproduction”)✦. Another formidable institution with class-based objections to the goals of eugenics was the trade union movement. Although not operating as a unified opposition against the spread of eugenics, there were significant sections of organised labour who were concerned that laws affecting mental defectives would heavily target working class children and withheld their support for it[6]. There was considerable skepticism within the Australian and New Zealand working classes about eugenics, many on the left saw it as espousing “elitist definitions of unfitness”[7].

IQ tests continued to be fashionable in the 1950s & beyond: giving ‘scientific’ credence to the stigmatising of those in society labelled as “less intelligent”
By the 1950s in Australasia eugenics had become unfashionable and had fallen out of favour with the public at large … biologists and other scientists, distancing themselves from the discredited eugenics tag, were shifting their focus and energies to working in the dynamic and burgeoning field of human genetics.

❃ incapacity for parenthood is still used as a valid justification by the Australian judiciary to authorise sterilisations – eg, the ‘burden’ of parents having to deal with the menstrual management of their disabled daughters, even in some cases where the girl was pre-menstrual!, ‘Fact Sheet: Forced Sterilisation – People With Disabilities Australia’, (C Frohmader, Women With Disabilities Australia, submission, 53rd Session of the Committee Against Torture, Geneva, Nov 2014)
✥ non-Catholic church support for eugenic aims in Australia and New Zealand was not as powerfully concentrated as it was in the United States
✦ practicing Catholics as a block tended to oppose eugenics, including writers of the faith such as G K Chesterton, Graham Greene and James Joyce

[1] C Thame, ‘Health and the State: the Development of Collective Responsibility for Health Care in Australia in the first half of the Twentieth Century’, (PhD dissertation, ANU, 1974)
[2] J Goldhar, ‘The Sterilisation of Women with an intellectual disability’, ‘Law and Society Conference’ (Brisbane, December 1990),
[3] T Taylor, ‘Thomas Hunter and the Campaign Against Eugenics, NZJH, 39(2) 2005
[4] M Finnane, ‘From dangerous lunatic to human rights?: the law and mental illness in Australian history’ in C Coleborne [Ed.], Madness in Australia: Histories, Heritage and the Asylum
[5] C Hamilton, ‘Sterilisation and intellectual disabled people in New Zealand – still on the agenda’, Kōtuitui: the New Zealand Journal Social Sciences Online, 7(2), Nov 2012
[6] S Garton, ‘Eugenics in Australia and New Zealand: Laboratories of Racial Science’, in A Bashford & P Levine [Eds.], The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics
[7] ibid.