BY BIRGITTA ISACSSON
STOCKHOLM, Sweden - A sharp debate has opened here over eugenics policies carried out for decades. Some 63,000 people were sterilized in Sweden between 1935 and 1975 to supposedly combat racial and social inferiority. Most were sterilized against their will, and the overwhelming majority of them were women.
Swedish authorities took the first steps toward a "racial hygiene" policy in 1921, when the State Institute for Race Biology was founded in Uppsala. It was the first institute of this kind in the world and a pattern for Kaiser Wilhelm Institute fur Rassenhygiene in Berlin, Germany. The institute distributed pictures of "racially clean" and "racially mixed" people. The "racially mixed" were gypsies, so-called travelers or tinkers, and others considered social outcasts. In 1934 the Swedish parliament adopted a law authorizing sterilization of the "mentally ill." This legislation was extended in 1941 to allow sterilization to combat "antisocial behavior."
By 1947, the number of sterilizations had grown to more than 2,000 a year, and stayed at that level into the 1950s. Swedish authorities put people in impossible situations, such as taking away their children or denying them abortions if they refused to sign an application for sterilization. Young people in reformatories had to sign as a condition for their release or for leave of absence. The forced sterilization laws were finally abolished in 1975 as one of the victories of the growing women's rights movement.
This type of abuse was by no means limited to Sweden. In Norway more than 40,000 people were subjected to this, and in Denmark 6,000. In United States 60,000 were sterilized between 1907 and 1960.
Articles spark controversy
While many of the details of this history have been public knowledge since the 1970s, the recent controversy was sparked by a series of articles on the subject by journalist Maciej Zaremba that appeared in the liberal Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter August 20-21. The articles and the controversy they sparked are part of a broader attack on the social welfare state, the so called "Swedish folk-home," an attack directed at the social rights won in struggles by working people.
Zaremba's articles take the view that the social democrats were responsible for the sterilizations, arguing that they wanted to build the welfare state, but a lot of people did not have the right disposition. "Through forced sterilization's folk-home Sweden could minimize the number of people living on welfare," he wrote.
The conservative daily Svenska Dagbladet picked up on this ammunition focusing on the sterilization debate. In its lead article September 1, the paper stated, "It has long been taboo to criticize the welfare state and the Swedish people's home. Those who have done so have been accused of being reactionaries, supporters of class differences and oppression...
"The system has forced people into lifestyle everybody must follow: Everybody should work full-time. Children should be in day-care centers... Even those with small income are taxed very hard. The school system is built on the notion that everybody has the same talents, are equally motivated to study, and learn and develop in the same tempo. The result has been that those who do not want to live according to the social state norm have become a problem. Youth cannot move from their parents any more. Those with low income are forced to live on welfare. And the Swedish school is very efficient at making children dropouts, hopeless cases who can't achieve anything."
But contrary to what Zaremba and Svenska Dagbladet assert, the Swedish policy on "racial hygiene" and sterilizations was carried out with the support of all the governing political parties in Sweden. Although they had different motives for supporting this policy, they voted nearly unanimously for it in parliament. While the conservatives and the fascists supported it from the point of view of making the Nordic Aryan race predominant and strengthen the Swedes, the social democrats pushed it as a means to eliminate social problems and make people in Sweden genetically better.
This was an important part of the attacks on working people throughout the 1930s and `40s under social-democratic governments. Along with the abortion law of 1938, the sterilization laws of 1935 and 1941 put the decisions over a woman's body in the hands of the authorities.
The ruling class in Sweden has not wanted a debate on the forced sterilization policy. The same holds true for other aspects of Swedish history that have long been public, including the rail transportation through Sweden of thousands of Nazi soldiers and war materiel to Norway when the Nazis had occupied that country, as well as the treatment of Jews during the World War II when a big "J" was marked on their passports. The Social Democrats, who headed the government from the early 1930s to the mid-70s, also want to block these debates.
But in this case they have been compelled to open an inquiry.
Responding to questions about the national sterilization policy, Carl Bildt, a leader of the Social Democrats, was forced to discuss the issue at his party congress in Umea September 1. "We all have part of the guilt. I take on some of the guilt. I did not know that it was so many or that it happened under such a long time," Bildt said.
"What happened was barbaric and the Social Democrats are part of a collective guilt which includes everybody," declared Social Minister Margot Wallstrom. On September 4 the government announced the appointment of a commission to investigate and "consider how to make amends and propose forms of compensation for the victims," said Wallstrom. Since 1975 around 30 people have demanded compensation, but only 16 have reportedly received $6,289.
"In the juridical spectra, those who were forced to sterilize have no right to compensation as it happened under the laws of these days. Here we talk about of compensation ex gratia, by grace," said Helena Starup from the Social Department.
Wallstrom herself recently signed a denial of compensation to Maria Nordin, who was forced to accept sterilization to get out of a so-called special school when she was 17 years old in 1943. Nordin, who has come out publicly in media, is a typical victim of the forced sterilizations. She was young, poor, and "within her family there were drinkers, mental illness, and a way of life without norms," the social authorities wrote about Nordin, considering this sufficient grounds to sterilize her.
Birgitta Isacsson is a member of the metalworkers union
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