4. ‘Problem Families’: the Legacy of Eugenic Opinions on the ‘Poor’

“UK riots: should there be a curfew?” The Guardian (9 August 2011)

“UK riots: should there be a curfew?” The Guardian (9 August 2011)

In the wake of the ‘England Riots’ of August 2011, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, confidently asserted that “a relatively small number of families are the source of a large proportion of the problems in society,” and that within these families there exists a “culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through generations.” With remarkably similar issues in mind, in 1945, The Times called the ‘problem family’ an “unsolved problem of national eugenics.” Subsequently, the British Eugenic Society formed the Problem Families Committee in 1947. What can the ‘problem families’ discourse tell us about the legacy of the eugenics movement today? Are we ‘enlightened’ now in our perceptions of the poor?

The eugenic classification of ‘problem families’ began in the 1940s. However, scholars have argued that the term was the successor of social attitudes going back to the late nineteenth century. Indeed, the Secretary of the Eugenics Society, Carlos Blacker (1895-1975), reflected in 1952 that “the dark side of urban industrialism, interest in the social importance of genealogy, concern over mental defectives, preoccupation with the prevention of hereditary infirmities, problems of war evacuation from large towns, and, most recently, the stirrings of conscience about children, have each, at different times, focussed attention on problem families.”

The term ‘problem families’ was first used in 1943 by the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) when referring to the often squalid living conditions of evacuated children. It became an issue of national importance and a significant obstacle for the welfare and public health professions. As we have seen, ‘problem families’ were also understood by some to be a eugenic problem. Biological determinism had coloured British eugenic attitudes to the poor since the early twentieth century; not least in their abortive push for the sterilization of ‘mental defectives’ in the 1930s. In 1945, even the Bishop of Birmingham, E.W. Barnes, had lamented the presence of problem families in Britain’s “towns and villages,” whom he believed to be inherently “sub-human, immoral, dirty, thievish, and untruthful,” with many also carriers of ‘mental deficiency.’  However, by the time Blacker published Problem Families: Five Inquiries in 1952 (a national study conducted by the Problem Families Committee), this explanation no longer seemed adequate. The study had demonstrated that “[t]he interaction of nature and nurture is here so close as to make it exceedingly difficult to distinguish the separate effects of each.”

C.P. Blacker (1895-1975), Secretary of the Eugenics Society

Carlos Blacker (1895-1975), Secretary of the Eugenics Society

Despite their seemingly elusive nature, ‘problem families’ remain a national issue. In 2012, after extensive fieldwork – including time spent with 16 ‘problem families’ – Louise Casey, the head of David Cameron’s ‘Troubled Families Unit,’ concluded that: “There are plenty of people who have large families and function incredibly well. The issue for me, out of the families that I have met, [is that] they are not functioning, lovely families. One of the families I interviewed had six social care teams attached to them: nine children, [and a] tenth on the way. Something has to give.”

Louise Casey pictured with David Cameron in 2013

Louise Casey pictured with David Cameron in 2013

In her article for The Guardian website, Zoe Williams criticised the project as a “demonisation of the poor.” However, some ‘commenters’ praised Casey’s work for identifying “those who perpetuate anti-social behaviour generation after generation and get away with it.” Moreover, several readers (perhaps from opposite ends of the political spectrum) on the Daily Mail and The Guardian websites suggested measures once considered eugenic. For some, while “[n]o one can force them to stop procreating,” in the case of ‘problem families,’ the “number of children should be limited.” However, remarkably, a significant minority agreed either that “Child Benefits [should be capped at] one child per parent” or that the introduction of “Voluntary sterilisation with a modest cash incentive” was the only way to solve the problem family.

Eugenic ideology no longer colours discussions on the ‘problem family’ as it once did. Indeed, present concerns over the relationship between family size and social background, are not influenced by eugenic concepts such as ‘racial degeneration’ or ‘biological improvement,’ as they were in the inter- and immediate post-war periods. However, it seems that even today debates on poverty and reproductive freedom are still influenced by a desire to control existing populations and future generations.


‘Social Casualties’, The Times (15 October 1946), 5.

‘Euthanasia and Sterilization,’ The Manchester Guardian (21 May 1945), 3.

C.P. Blacker, Problem Families: Five Inquiries (London: Eugenics Society, 1952).

D. Cameron, ‘Troubled Families Speech,’ Number 10, (15 December 2011), [www.number10.gov.uk/news/troubled-families-speech/].

“UK riots: should there be a curfew?” The Guardian (9 August 2011) [http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/poll/2011/aug/09/london-riots-curfew].

Winnet and J. Kirkup, “Problem families ‘have too many children.’ Telegraph, (July 20, 2012), [www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9416535/Problem-families-have-too-many-children.html].

Williams, “The real ‘problem’ with these families is that they’re poor,” The Guardian, (July 18, 2012), [www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/18/problem-families-poverty].


3. Project Prevention: Sterilization, Drug Addiction and the Stigma of Eugenics

“Call me cynical, but wasn’t Adolf Hitler up for sterilizing minorities?” This comment in reaction to a 2010 Daily Mail article on the sterilization of drug addicts was ‘disliked’ by 43 people. Is it right to dismiss sterilization because it was used in Nazi Germany in an attempt to create Hitler’s eugenic utopia?

Project Prevention (1997- ) is a US charity dedicated to preventing drug addicts from having children. In 2010, it gained substantial media coverage for its work in Britain, including interviews on BBC Radio 4 and a nationally televised documentary, ‘Sterilising the Addicts’ (2010). 801 comments were posted below the BBC article ‘Charity offers UK drug addicts £200 to be sterilized’. Many of which were negative with the link to Nazi Germany unavoidable: “I seem to remember a similar programme of sterilizing the undeserving and undesirables back in the 1930s. It did not end well.” However, this guilty by association mentality brushes over many of the issues. Eugenics was primarily concerned with furthering human evolution. Though accused by some of coercion and exploitation of the ‘weak’, is Project Prevention actually eugenic in intent? Arguably the main intention of the charity is to prevent child abuse or neglect rather than improve the ‘race’. Almost seventy years after the Holocaust ended, we again ask the question, should everyone be allowed to reproduce?

“Bribe: Barbara Harris is filmed handing over the cash to drug addict 'John' after he had the vasectomy operation”, Daily Mail (22 October 2010)

“Bribe: Barbara Harris is filmed handing over the cash to drug addict ‘John’ after he had the vasectomy operation”, Daily Mail (22 October 2010)

In 2010, one BBC reader commented in support of Project Prevention, “[t]he addiction is due to their problems or lifestyle choices and subjecting any child to this is nothing less than abuse.” Another agreed that it “could be a way of curtailing this growing problem for our next generation” (BBC News, October 17, 2010). The Daily Mail even took a poll asking “Should drug addicts be paid to get sterilised”, with the results indicating an even divide of opinion: 53% Yes and 47% No. More recently, however, the founder/director Barbara Harris has lamented the fact that it can no longer pay British addicts to be sterilized, due to overwhelming opposition from the British Medical Association, which questioned the permanent nature of the procedures used. While practical considerations such as this should perhaps be the main considerations, many also drew comparisons with the eugenics movement.

In 1934, the British Eugenics Society recommended to parliament that the ‘mentally defective’, those with a transmissible physical disability, and those likely to transmit a mental defect or disorder should be sterilized. However, Nazi compulsory sterilization (1933-1945) was largely recognized in Britain as an overtly racist violation of human rights and parliament concluded that the legalization of sterilization had dangerous political overtones and the plan was dismissed. Although the Third Reich received condemnation in Britain and elsewhere there were many who continued to support the ideals of eugenics, and called the German experience a “disastrous development with its unrealistic ideas of superman and worthless racial elements, a development which ended in catastrophe”.

Immediately after the war, letters to The Times editor,  described Germany’s “sadistic cruelties” and “bestial atrocities” suggesting there was no rational basis for the Holocaust. Was the main difference between the British and German campaigns for eugenic sterilization legislative success or ideology? Arguably, both the British and German examples essentially shared the same ideological blueprint and intended to remove inferior strains of the population as if a gangrenous limb in order to further human evolution.

Either way, today the word ‘eugenics’ still conjures images such as this:


Is this the case for sterilization? Should we discount the sterilization of drug addicts today because of how the procedure was abused in the past? Whether or not sterilization will or should be used as a ‘permanent contraceptive’ for drug addicts, the intrinsic link with past atrocities is unavoidable.

With over 2000 babies born each year to addicts, many support Project Prevention, with the charity receiving half a million dollars per year in donations. Barbara Harris told the Daily Mail in 2010 that while her critics were “calling me Hitler”, for her the only concern was “preventing child abuse.” While some have accused Harris of bribery, the addicts themselves often agree with her philosophy. Before being sterilized, the first British client of Project Prevention, a man named John, who had been addicted to opiates for 15 years, commented that “I won’t be able to support a kid. I can just about manage to support myself”.


T. Kemp, ‘Genetic Hygiene Experience in Denmark in Recent Years’, The Eugenics Review, VOL. XLIX, No. 1, (April, 1957): 11.

The ‘Letters to the Editor’ sections of The Times from April 21-23, 1945 give good indication of initial public reaction to the Holocaust e.g. J. Duncan, ‘Germany And The Camps: Making The Truth Known’, The Times, 50124 (April 23, 1945); and 5; S. King-Hall, “German Crimes: The Parliamentary Delegation”, The Times, 50123 (April 21, 1945): 5.


‘Have Your Say: Should addicts be encouraged to be sterilised?’, BBC News, [http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/haveyoursay/2010/10/should_addicts_be_encouraged_t.html?page=1#comments] .


2. ‘Designer Babies’ and the Culture of ‘Perfection’

‘THE TRUE COST OF DESIGNER BABIES’ 20.09.2012, (http://www.catholicsistas.com/2012/09/20/the-true-cost-of-designer-babies/)


“My god no, just think if Victoria Beckham ever understood a word of what you said, the horror of the designer baby that she would demand”. With 24 ‘likes’ this was the most popular comment on a 2013 Guardian article titled, ‘“Designer babies”: the ultimate privileged elite?’.

As well as a snipe at the former Spice Girl and now fashion designer’s apparent obsession with appearance, this reveals a dissatisfaction with societal values and the culture of ‘perfection’. What happens when a society that among other things idolises fashion models and film stars – and promotes among other things cosmetic surgeries and diet pills that enable one to look like fashion models and film stars – begins to direct such feelings towards the next generation? 

Though there exists considerable disquiet regarding current societal norms, many perhaps correctly defend modern reproductive technologies, including in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). After all, they enable people with fertility issues to start families and can even prevent the inheritance of a range of hereditary diseases, from cystic fibrosis to muscular dystrophy. As David King commented in the early days of PGD, the main group “of clients for this service have been couples known to be at risk of having children affected by a genetic disorder, often because they already have an affected child” (King, 1999). However, though not widely legalised it is also becoming possible to control the sex, intelligence (to a degree) and physical characteristics of future children. Indeed, what begins with the elimination of ‘degenerative’ conditions could end with the ‘designer baby’. Should we be allowed such control over the genetic constitution of our children? Is this simply a dangerous and lamentable experiment as humankind’s innate obsession with ‘perfection’ persists?

The much maligned eugenics movement was also concerned with human ‘perfection’. From the 1900s until well into the post-war period, one of the main concerns of British eugenicists was the removal of ‘degenerative’ hereditary conditions, mostly through the use of negative eugenics (e.g. birth control, sterilization etc). This was viewed as essential to human progress and the furtherance of evolution. However, from the mid-1930s techniques such as sterilization – and the state enforcement of – became associated with Nazi Germany and increasingly reprehensible, both from scientific and moral standpoints. The eugenics movement in Britain was ultimately unsuccessful in gaining the legislative backing it required to make a significant impact on society. In order to keep their dream of a biological utopia alive, some eugenicists gave increased consideration to the benefits of ‘positive eugenics’ in a quest for ‘better babies’ which, arguably, continues today. One of the methods considered was known as eutelegenesis, defined as “Artificial insemination by semen from a donor selected because of certain desirable characteristics for the development of superior offspring” (‘Eutelegenesis’, The Free Dictionary).

From the 1930s, figures such as Julian Huxley, Herbert Brewer and Carlos Blacker argued for the benefits of this technique over negative eugenics. With regard to the prevalence of mental deficiency and other ‘latent’ defects, whereas “the elimination of such degeneracy by sterilizing” would be like “clearing a river of fish by catching the few which jump from the water,” artificial insemination would ensure that the “existence the whole inextricable tangle of latent defect” would be swept out “in a few generations, replacing it concurrently with hereditary material of the highest excellence.” That said, one of Brewer’s central arguments was that eugenic artificial insemination should be voluntary in nature; not enforced but brought about by a national eugenic consciousness, created through education and cultural propaganda. As long as the general public could be made aware of the biological ‘facts’ of inheritance, it would surely be accepted that it was “the right of every individual that is born to the inheritance of the finest hereditary endowment that anywhere exists” (Brewer, 1937). Arguably, Brewer’s wish is finally coming true.

Since the first IVF (or ‘test tube’) baby, Louise Joy Brown, was born in 1978, artificial insemination has become more socially acceptable. In a 1996 episode of the TV show Friends, for example, the character of Monica, a single twenty-something woman, considered using a sperm bank to start a family, impressed that one donor in the catalogue was “6’2 and 170 pounds”. Arguably, IVF has shifted somewhat from an exclusivley ‘private’ matter to an accepted – if expensive – aspect of modern life. The geneticist and fertility expert, Dagan Wells commented in 2013 that “IVF is still expensive and uncomfortable with no guarantee of a baby at the end. I can’t imagine many people wanting to go through the strains of IVF for something trivial” (Wells, 2013). Are cost and efficiency the only barriers preventing IVF becoming a common practice?

Certainly the issue becomes more complex and expensive when genetic screening is introduced, as we move from ‘test tube’ to ‘designer’ babies. Films such as Gattaca (1997) make us shudder at the notion that in the ‘not-too-distant future’ society may praise stronger, faster and smarter ‘test tube babies’ and shun those ‘inferior’ individuals belonging to the ‘invalid’ minority conceived ‘naturally’.

As well as fears of a dystopian future, the idea of ‘designer babies’ also faces notable religious opposition. One contributor to an online Catholic blog writes “I can’t help but shudder at the pressure the little girls created via PGD will live under, with mommies willing to kill–literally–to have them. All of us have dreams of what we’d like our family to be. The danger is in letting those dreams rule you, to the point you’re willing to usurp God’s sovereignty over human life to get what you want. The use of sex-selection technology to obtain a child is tragic for everyone involved, from the embryonic children created (just to be destroyed), to the “lucky” girls allowed to be born (to suffocate under mommy’s expectations), to the parents losing their souls in their quest for a designer baby. Gattaca has arrived. May God have mercy on us.” (2012) When does life begin? Is IVF/PGD playing God or simply providing your child with the best possible start in life?

Whether or not they are universally accepted, we must ask the question what if techniques such as IVF and PGD become affordable options for the average consumer? If ‘test tube babies’ were ‘free on the NHS’, for instance, it seems reasonable to assume that a significant proportion of the population would use this service. Parents naturally desire to give their children the best possible chance to ‘succeed’ in life. Why not start with their genetic constitution? It seems clear from the ‘rise’ of cosmetic surgery, for instance, that mankind’s desire for ‘perfection’ did not end with the eugenics movement. With traits from intelligence to eye colour theoretically alterable before conception, why stop with our children?


‘“Designer babies”: the ultimate privileged elite?’, The Guardian, (9 July 2013), [http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jul/09/ivf-baby-born-genetic-selection-ultimate-elite]

David S. King, ‘Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis and the “New” Eugenics,’ Journal of Medical Ethics 25 (1999), 176.


‘Eutelegenesis’, The Free Dictionary, [http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/eutelegenesis].

Herbert Brewer, Eugenics and Politics (London: Eugenics Society, 1937), 3.

1. ‘Racial Poisons’ and ‘Foetal Alcohol Syndrome’: Eugenics, Epigenetics and Pre-Natal Child Welfare

Today I tuned in to a BBC Radio Five Live phone-in debate on foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). This was in response to the news of a recent compensation claim: a child was born with brain injuries and facial deformities as a result of her mother’s heavy drinking during pregnancy. After considering advances in the field of epigenetics as well as the history of the eugenics movement in Britain, I ask: should it just be post-conception we discuss or do our lifestyle choices influence the health of our children before they are even conceived?

‘Foetal alcohol syndrome compensation case goes before Court of Appeal,’ The Independent (4 November 2014), [http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/foetal-alcohol-syndrome-compensation-case-goes-before-court-of-appeal-9839422.html].

‘Foetal alcohol syndrome compensation case goes before Court of Appeal,’
The Independent (4 November 2014), [http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/foetal-alcohol-syndrome-compensation-case-goes-before-court-of-appeal-9839422.html].

During pregnancy, is alcohol abuse also child abuse? With FAS resulting in a range of debilitating conditions, including heavy autism, organ dysfunction and susceptibility to alcohol and addiction, the radio debate questioned: should heavy drinking during pregnancy be criminalized? Listeners were somewhat polarised ranging from ‘it didn’t do any harm to my children’ and ‘if they ban drinking during pregnancy what will be next? We’ve all become so authoritarian. Dare I say, Orwellian?’ to asking ‘what’s the difference between drinking during pregnancy and injecting a new born baby with alcohol?’ While public opinion on FAS is by no means uniform, it forces discussion on the relationship between alcoholism and poverty, welfare, reproductive freedom and crime, to name a few.

A Guardian article from earlier in the year reported of a similar case in which a local authority claimed that “the mother’s actions in continuing to drink while pregnant constituted poisoning.” In the early 1900s, the assumed impact of the environment, lifestyle and various ‘poisons’ on future generations – from morphine and alcohol to lead and venereal disease – was an equally polarised debate. This was especially so within the British Eugenics Society.

Many British eugenicists, like President of the Eugenics Society and son of Charles Darwin, Leonard Darwin, believed in the theory of biological determinism. With the idea of ‘like produces like’ reinforcing the assumed class/intelligence structure of society and securing the younger Darwin as one of the nation’s biological elite, he – and many other eugenicists – believed no amount of boozing could affect his prestigious seed. However, not all eugenicists were informed by such cultural and racial stereotypes alone (or at all), something made clear in neo-Lamarckian discussions on alcohol abuse. It was asked, to what extent did certain lifestyle choices (e.g. alcohol, morphine and venereal disease) result in inheritable conditions?

Caleb Saleeby (1878-1940) [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caleb_Saleeby#mediaviewer/File:Caleb_Saleeby.jpg]

Caleb Saleeby (1878-1940)

Pre- and post-natal child welfare was the centrepiece of many a neo-Lamarckian eugenicist’s ideology. In the 1910s, a leading member of the eugenics movement, Caleb Saleeby, referred to alcohol as a type of “poison” for the next generation. For Saleeby, it was a “racial poison”. One of Saleeby’s chief concerns was the impact alcohol, and other “racial poisons”, had on the “germ cells” (reproductive cells). If ‘taken’ in large quantities both during pregnancy and, significantly, before conception, in the latter case whether by the father or the mother, it was believed that alcohol (and morphine, lead or venereal disease for that matter) would harm to the genetic constitution of the child, and the child’s children (and the child’s children’s children etc). In short, for Saleeby, – and others including A.F. Tredgold, E.W. MacBride and Mary Scharleib – the abuse of alcohol during or before pregnancy, caused a process of ‘germ-weakening’ with disastrous implications for the future of the British race. This idea impacted wider society through, for instance, the introduction of variants of ‘racial hygiene’ to the school curriculum in the 1900s, groups such as the Society for the Study of Inebriety (1900s-1930s) and sustained support in Britain for the American prohibition laws of 1924-1933.

After the (re-)discovery of Mendel’s laws of heredity in 1900, neo-Lamarckian theories of acquired characteristics such as these were derided for much of the following century. Recently, however, this view has been challenged. Scientists, including Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb, authors of Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioural and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (2005), have argued that emerging epigenetic theories are neo-Lamarckian in nature. This new discipline suggests that factors from mental trauma to diet and exercise may result in inheritable changes in gene behaviour (DNA methylation). Studies into famine in nineteenth century Sweden, the children of Holocaust survivors and pregnant 9/11 victims, as well as genetic susceptibility to cancer, for example, all indicate that these changes can last for several generations. Epigenetic studies have already prompted several television documentaries, such as the BBC’s ‘The Ghost in Your Genes’ (2005), as well as prolonged debates on national radio, and headlines in newspapers such as ‘Don’t blame your genes…change them!,’ ‘Why DNA isn’t your destiny,’ ‘Why Granddad is making our babies ill’ and ‘Smoking “scars” DNA and increases risk of obesity.’

‘How does epigenetics shape life? (17 April, 2012), [http://allotrope.fieldofscience.com/2012/04/how-does-epigenetics-shape-life.html].

‘How does epigenetics shape life? (17 April, 2012), [http://allotrope.fieldofscience.com/2012/04/how-does-epigenetics-shape-life.html].

How do these discoveries relate to foetal alcohol syndrome? Drinking during pregnancy may become criminalized as a form of pre-natal child abuse. Recent studies, including ‘Epigenetics – Beyond the Genome in Alcoholism’ (Starkman, Sakharkar and Pandey, 2012) have suggested that prolonged alcohol abuse can result in inheritable changes, including susceptibility to alcohol addiction. As epigenetics becomes more established will future Five Live debates bring into question peoples’ lifestyles before conception as well as during gestation? Will such debates become ingrained in popular culture as was the case with IVF and pre-natal screening? If one’s environment and lifestyle can have a dramatic influence on the behaviour of their genes, we can make the safe assumption that although now we are discussing the influence of alcohol on the growing foetus as a form of ‘poisoning’, soon enough we may be talking in terms of pre-conception child abuse.

Dr. Patrick T. Merricks                                                                                                          5.11.2014



C. Saleeby, ‘Racial Poisons, II: Alcohol,’ The Eugenics Review 2, 1 (April 1910), 30-52.


F. Khan, ‘Epigenetics Research, “The Culture of Poverty,” and “The Bell Curve”,’ Neuroethics & Law Blog (26th October 2010), [http://kolber.typepad.com/ethics_law_blog/2010/10/whos-your-favorite-person-in-the-world-and-what-do-you-love-about-them.html, accessed: 5 November 2014].

K.L. Macintosh, ‘Brave New Eugenics: Regulating Assisted Reproductive Technologies in the Name of Better Babies,’ Journal of Law, Technology & Policy (2010), 257-310.

M.A. Rothstein, Y. Cai and E. Marchant, ‘The Ghost in Our Genes: Legal and Ethical Implications of Epigenetics,’ Health Matrix 19, 1 (2009), 1-62.