• Glossary Term



Eugenics was an influential doctrine popular from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. Eugenics refers to the philosophy and practice of selective breeding of humans with desirable (or “superior”) hereditary traits. While not discounting the role of environmental factors, it placed considerable emphasis on heredity in shaping an individual’s characteristics. The ideas within eugenics were ableist, classist and racist. Eugenics influenced some laws and policies in the twentieth century that resulted in children being removed from their parents, families and communities, supposedly to ‘improve’ the child by placing them in more ‘moral’ and ‘healthy’ environments.

Eugenics was a pseudo-scientific social movement based on distorted beliefs about ‘fit’ and ‘unfit’ people. Eugenics influenced policies and practices towards people with disabilities, particularly intellectual disabilities. Eugenicists believed that they could breed out mental deficiency by segregating and sterilising the ‘unfit’.

Eugenics emphasised the superiority of the white race. Its advocates believed that in order for white people to maintain their dominance in the world, governments should intervene to promote the physical fitness of white children.

According to Christina Gillgren (1996), eugenicists held three beliefs that influenced their practices and the policies they tried to implement in Western Australia in the twentieth century:

  • Poverty, crime and ‘mental deficiency’ were linked
  • Healthy living and the encouragement of good breeding could restore the social balance
  • The ‘unfit’ should be stopped from breeding through ‘locating, then registering, and finally segregating or sterilising them’ (Gillgren, p.65).

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