Colorado’s Lukewarm Reaction to the 1921 Sheppard-Towner Act

An old stethoscope rests on a leather med kit on clean white sheets.
Congress passed the Sheppard-Towner Act in 1921 to provide federal funding for maternity and child care, but the Act wasn’t renewed past 1929 and state compliance was inconsistent. / Photo credit Marcelo Leal via Unsplash.

In November 1921, Congress passed the Sheppard-Towner Act which provided federal funding for maternity and child care. But Colorado didn’t fully adopt the Act’s provisions until 1923. 

The Sheppard-Towner Act was passed to reduce maternal and infant mortality, but while some states used the federal funding to address maternal health care in rural areas, Colorado delayed compliance for a year after it was enacted. Colorado also deployed rural outreach programs for maternal and child health care by combining efforts of four statewide agencies, according to the Colorado State Medical Society in 1923.

“Many states accepted funding through the Sheppard-Towner Act, leading to the establishment of nearly 3,000 prenatal care clinics, 180,000 infant care seminars, over three million home visits by traveling nurses, and a national distribution of educational literature between 1921 and 1928,” according to a 2017 article for The Embryo Project by Katherine Madgett. 

But the act was highly disputed by medical organizations like the American Medical Association. Published materials from the Colorado State Medical Society in 1923 noted that opponents to the Act may not have fully considered the “merits of the bill.” 

The Eagle County News in January 1921 reported that opposition in Washington argued to the House Interstate Commerce Committee that “the measure would be used to ‘promote prejudiced and misleading propaganda.’” The Aspen Democrat-Times reported in June 1923 that two lawsuits filed in Massachusetts to test the validity of the “Sheppard-Towner maternity act” had been dismissed due to lack of jurisdiction. “As a result of this decision the law which was passed by the last congress and [hai]led as boon for American womanhood, is allowed to stand although its constitutional merits have not yet been decided,” reported the Aspen Democrat-Times. 

Madgett noted the “Act provided funding for five years, but was repealed in 1929” when Congress didn’t renew it. Infant mortality decreased during the years the Act was in effect, according to Madgett.

The Surface Creek Champion reported in July 1929 that 24,500 babies were saved in the previous year due to “the work of various agencies for child and maternal care.” The article went on to note that the infant mortality rate was the lowest in the history of the U.S. “The estimate of the babies saved is based on the death rate prevailing in 1921, before the Sheppard-Towner bill providing for state and federal care for mothers and infants was passed. According to the bureau’s figures, the 1928 baby has just twice the chance of living out his first year that a baby born in 1921 had,” reported the Surface Creek Champion.

The Social Security Act of 1935 passed a few years later and covered many of the provisions from the Sheppard-Towner Act.

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