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Europe: Sweden's Sterilization Program Has Plenty Of Company

  • Don Hill

Prague, 29 August 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Newspaper revelations last week that Swedish authorities between 1935 and 1976 conducted forced sterilizations of 60,000 men and women deemed racially defective have shocked the Swedes and disgusted much of the Western world.

But additional data churned up since by the report from Sweden show that similar practices continue today in Austria and Belgium. And the model for the Swedish program was the United States.

The Report

Investigative reporter Maciej Zaremba reported last week in the leading Swedish daily, "Dagens Nyheter," that a compulsory sterilization law authorized doctors and the courts to enforce sterilization on people labeled inferior, the mentally ill, single mothers with many children, people considered deviants, gypsies, and persons of mixed race.

Zaremba said a motive was to build a stronger, healthier Swedish race that would make less of a demand on Sweden's renowned cradle-to-grave welfare society. The reporter laid the blame for the practice on the ruling Swedish Social Democratic Party, which has dominated Swedish politics for 60 years. The policy was approved unanimously by succeeding parliaments until legislators quietly killed it in 1976.

The reporter said that many European countries entertained the idea of using the pseudo science of eugenics to eliminate society's genetic undesirables. But, he wrote, only Sweden, Denmark, Nazi Germany, Norway, Finland, Estonia and a canton of Switzerland actually adopted the practice.

In one strong passage, he wrote: "To put it brutally. In Sweden it was only under the Social Democrats and in Germany only under the Nazis that citizens' capacity for reproduction could be stolen because of the color of their hair or their handicaps."


Although the sterilizations had never been secret, the program went unmentioned in history books, had always been treated gingerly by the press, and up to last week hadn't been a public issue. Zaremba's series of articles last week set off a furor in Sweden that reverberated elsewhere in the world.

On Monday, Alf Svensson, leader of the Swedish Christian Peoples' Party, wrote to Prime Minister Goran Persson calling for a parliamentary commission to investigate what he called these "terrifying facts." The next day, opposition Conservative Party leader Carl Bildt wrote to the prime minister seconding the call. That same day, Social Affairs Minister Margot Wallstroehm announced that such a commission will be convened. She said the government will consider compensating those who were forcibly sterilized.

The reporter, Zaremba, says that more than 20,000 such people are still alive but that most don't want to come forward because of the stigma. Wallstroehm said that the sterilizations went unpublicized so long because, in her words, "It runs so deep. It is so awful."

Author Jan Myrdahl, interviewed by the French news agency Agence France Presse, said that the idea of sterilizing the dregs of society took hold in some Swedish universities at the turn of the century. It earlier had been discussed in the United States and Germany as a means of purifying the race.

History professor Gunnar Broberg said Sweden's political elite believed they were doing the right thing. He said they were in line with what he called "the science of the time." And Swedish historian Alf Johansson was quoted in the Swedish press as saying the idea was taking life again in the minds of some doctors "not only in Sweden but in the whole world."

Swedes Not Alone

After the uproar in Sweden, reports of like practices drew notice around the world.

In the United States, Gerald Gelb, author of "The Mad Among Us," said in an interview this week that sterilization has a long U.S. history. Gelb said that late in the last century a fear developed that degenerate groups would pull down the general level of the population. He said people seized upon eugenics to provide a solution. Gelb said that by the 1930s, thirty U.S. states had laws authorizing involuntary sterilization of the mentally ill. He said about 60,000 Americans were given vasectomies (men) or tubal ligations (women) over 53 years until 1960.

In 1975, the U.S. government conceded that the Indian Health Service had sterilized 40 percent of native American women in a secret program.

Gelb contends that the drive for an Aryan race actually began in the United States. He says that Germans borrowed some such ideas from the United States. He says 75 percent of forced sterilizations were in California, Virginia, and Kansas where the practice met least resistance. Catholics and human rights groups lobbied against them and most laws were off the books by the 1970s.

News reports this week say forced sterilizations still are done in Belgium and Austria. Reuter news agency says that in Austria mentally handicapped women are still being sterilized, usually against their will.

And the Belgian Health Ministry said Tuesday that sterilizing mentally handicapped people is a current practice in Belgium but only with the patients' permission. The president of the Belgian bio-ethics committee, Yvon Englert, said it is not a mass strategy. He said the procedure aims to alleviate handicapped persons of the burden of a pregnancy they would not be able to cope with, while still allowing them to have sexual relations. The question of how mentally-handicapped persons can give informed consent wasn't addressed.

A Swiss historian said Tuesday that Swiss doctors in the French-speaking canton of Vaud sterilized mentally-handicapped patients, mostly women, against their will under a 1928 law. The historian, Hans Ulrich Jost of the University of Lausanne, said the Vaud law came to the attention of Germany's Adolph Hitler, who sent for a copy. Vaud officials say the practice ceased more than 20 years ago.