September 24, 2023

Sweden’s shameful history of involuntary sterilization

Three startling facts emerge from histories of eugenics in the early 20th century throughout Western democratic countries: they were not secret; they were supported by the public; and they tended to increase exponentially.

A recent feature in EuroNews focuses on Sweden. Between 1934 and 1976 about 62,000 Swedes, mostly women, were forcibly sterilised. Often the reasons were trivial: low IQ, anti-social behaviour, or being of mixed blood,

“These acts were barbaric,” said Margot Wallstrom, the minister of health and social affairs, back in 1999 when the news surfaced in the media. “We should call things by their right name. Today, of course, we strongly condemn these acts, and they can never be defended.”

A law passed in 1934 authorised involuntary sterilisation for eugenic, social or medical reasons. Sweden’s State Institute for Racial Biology inspired a similar institute in Germany. “All parties, except the Communists, were supporting this. It was described as a public health measure”, Sven Widmalm, of Uppsala University, told EuroNews.

“Science was God at that time. So they supported the law and social engineering”, says Professor Maija Runcis, a history professor at the University of Stockholm. “It was the scientific way to clean the society of the ‘feeble minded’”.

She became interested in the history of eugenics when she plunged into government archives. The first file she read described the case of a 13-year-old girl whose pastor had complained that she was not paying sufficient attention in confirmation classes; she was sterilised.

Professor Runcis discovered that her own mother had been sterilised, along with her uncle. Two of her uncle’s friends, who had also been sterilised, committed suicide.

According to the Washington Post, “The law in Sweden was broadened in 1941 to include sterilization not only for reasons of mental incompetence, but for what was considered antisocial behaviour. The new law dramatically increased the number of sterilizations. In 1935, there were 235; in 1941, there were 800; from the late 1940s into the 1950s, there were about 2,000 per year.”