Eradication of "deviants": the dark side of the Swedish Model."

Sweden's policy of forced sterilization of disabled people and others shocked the world. Dr. Adolf Ratzka comments on the news. Internet publication URL: www.independentliving.org/docs5/Sterilization.html

by Dr. Adolf Ratzka Ph.D, October 1997


The world was shocked by the recent news of a skeleton in Sweden’s closet, the country’s forced sterilization policy of disabled people and others who were not found to be worthy to have children. The facts are clear, there is no reason to question the authencity of the sterilization records. Sources other than Dagens Nyheter, the nation’s largest daily newspaper that recently started the sterilization discussion, as well as researchers are confirming the facts. Also, Sweden is famous for its comprehensive statistics. Thus, all sterilizations records and "patient" journals are archived and available to researcchers and journalists. Persons who were sterilized against their will have come out of their silence and appeared in the media. The sterilizations were fully legal according to the laws of the time. There were well-developed and state-regulated routines with medical experts at the local and national level, the Ministry of Health and Welfare, with a panel of highly placed representatives of political parties (mainly female Social Democrats including an ambassador to the United Nations) who signed the decisions that would deprive tens of thousands of persons of one of the most basic human rights, the right to have children.

The motives? Discussion and practice of eugenics, the effort to "improve" a nation’s genetic material, started shortly after the turn of the century. In recent years, scientific advances are improving the means to detect "subnormal" embryos as candidates for legal abortions and have opened up the possibility of genetic manipulation. In short, the tendency to value quality of life as measured in biological terms is still very much alive and even on the increase throughout the West.

During the period between the end of WW I and the end of WW II there existed an additional factor that favored the "biologistic" outlook on life: racism and nationalism. These ideologies received the greatest support during fascism in Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan. But fascism as an ideological movement was influential in many other countries. It is an established fact that Sweden and other Nordic countries had friendly relations with Nazi Germany up until and even after the outbreak of WW II. Many of the nationalistic and racist thoughts and programs that Hitler Germany stood for were also popular in Sweden. For example, it was at the request of Swedish immigration authorities that German authorities stamped the letter "J" (for Jew) in the passports of Jews. Some historians claim that the Swedish Medical Association lobbied for a reduction of Jewish immigration in this way, fearing competition from the influx of Jewish immigrants many of whom were professionals including medical doctors.

Already in the 1920s Sweden established the State Institute for Race Biology that was to operate until the 1950s. State institutions, such as this institute, party ideologists and leading politicians formulated the sterilization programs in an attempt to improve the nation’s genetic material by insuring that citizens who were considered to be "insufficient", "imbecil", "deviant" and "a burden to society" would not have children. The legal base to this practice was passed by parliament in true democratic fashion.

While eugenic motives played a role in the sterilizations, economic aspects were also important. When child allowances - monthly payments to families for each child, administered by the tax-funded national social insurance scheme - were introduced in the 1950s, the number of forced sterilizations of the "undesirable" part of the population doubled. The Swedish concept of the "people’s home", formulated in the 1930s and the most influential vision in Swedish politics, was based on the ideal of a closely-knit, homogenous society - similar to a family - where all members would support each other. Each one would contribute according to one’s abilities and would receive according to one’s needs. The folkhem - as the concept is called in Swedish - was to become the foundation of decades of peaceful labor relations, far-reaching social reforms and unprecedented economic growth.

The dark side to this model was the harsh demand for conformity. People who did not correspond to the ideal of this new society were not welcome. For example, a recent newspaper article reported the case of a girl in her late teens who in the late 1940s was sterilized against her will. The justification given in her journal was the comment that she had often been seen hanging around the town’s dancing hall.

Another contributing factor why these "legal" human rights violations were tolerated and supported by so many for so long - 60,000 persons were sterilized in roughly half a century when Sweden¥s average population was about 6 million - was probably the absence of a court to investigate the constitutionality of new laws. Sweden has never had a revolution and the state and its administration have enjoyed a trust that many foreign observers find astounding. There were no perceived reasons for the necessity of an elaborate system of checks and balances as in other countries. Thus, in a country with a relative homgeneous population, without separation of State and Church, with strong traditions of collectivism and consensus decisions, majority rule in parliament has been considered to be a sufficient guarantee to pass laws in the nation’s best interest.

In recent months European newspapers carried accounts of forced sterilization in other countries, such as Finalnd, Norway, Denmark, Austria and Belgium. But the fact that in Sweden more persons were sterilized, on a per capita basis, than in other countries is hard to understand both in Sweden and abroad. Perhaps it has to do with the image that Swedes have of themselves and that they want to spread: Sweden, the peaceful nation, neutral, unafraid to point at violations of human rights in other parts of the world, a country of advanced social reforms, where citizens enjoy a high and guaranteed level of public services in education, health and social welfare.

During the last decade Sweden has been changing. When Prime Minister Olof Palme was murdered in the street, the nation was shocked. Such a crime had been unimaginable in their country. Since then Sweden has changed to a degree that many older persons say they do not recognize their country anymore. Increasing globalization of the economy, the entrance requirements to the European Monetary Union (to start in 1999) and a long-drawn recession have forced the government to carry out painful cuts in tax-funded programs in order to reduce public spending to the level of other OECD countries in an effort to improve the country’s competitive standing. Soon, Sweden’s social policy will not materially differ from that of other European countries.

Soon, Sweden will not be what it used to be. Perhaps the forced sterilization disclosure gives us reasons to doubt whether it had ever been what it used to be.

Adolf D Razka, Ph.D.
Independent Living Institute
Sweden

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