The Swedish Eugenic Societies


Compulsory sterilisation in Sweden were sterilisations which were carried out in Sweden, without a valid consent of the subject, during the years 1906–1975 on eugenic, medical and social grounds. Between 1972 and 2013, sterilisation was also a condition for gender reassignment surgery.

The general rule between 1941 and 1976 was that sterilisation was illegal, but there were three grounds on which sterilisation could be permitted:[5]

Medical, if a pregnancy could seriously put a woman suffering from chronic illness or permanently weakened constitution at risk of life and health.
Eugenic, which allowed sterilising people considered insane or with severe illness or with a physical disability.
Social indication allowed sterilisation of people considered unsuitable to foster a child due to mental illness, being feebleminded or having an antisocial lifestyle.

It was never legal to physically restrain a person.[6]

From 1944, the number of eugenic sterilisations under the 1941 legal provisions gradually decreased.

In 1997, on behalf of the Swedish government, the ethnologists Mikael Eivergård and Lars-Eric Jönsson made an attempt at estimating what percentage of sterilisations were coerced. They found that a quarter of the applications were made under circumstances similar to coercion such as a condition for release from an institution and that another 9 percent were signed under pressure. In half of the cases they found no sign of coercion or pressure, but signs of the applicants' own initiative. Tydén uses these percentages to make an estimate of the number of operations under coercion. He found that 15,000 were made as a condition for release and that another 5500 to 6000 were made under other kinds of pressure, whereas 30,000 were voluntary and on the applicants' own initiative.[8] From the 2000s, the Swedish state paid out damages to victims who filed for compensation.

The law was passed while the Swedish Social Democratic Party was in power, though it was also supported by all other political parties in Parliament at the time, as well as the Lutheran Church and much of the medical profession.[129] From about 1934 to 1975, Sweden sterilized more than 62,000 people.[130]

The Swedish government inquiry found that about 30,000 of the 62,000 were sterilised under some form of pressure or coercion. As was the case in other programs, ethnicity and race were believed to be connected to mental and physical health. The Swedish government inquiry denied that the Swedish sterilisation programme targeted ethnic minorities.

Other countries that adopted some form of eugenics program at one time include Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland with programs to sterilize people the government declared to be mentally deficient.[134] In Denmark, the first eugenics law was passed in 1926, under the Social Democrats, with more legislation being passed in 1932. Though the sterilization was initially voluntary (at least theoretically), the law passed in 1932 allowed for involuntary sterilization of some groups.

Beginning in the late 1920s, greater appreciation of the difficulty of predicting characteristics of offspring from their heredity, and scientists' recognition of the inadequacy of simplistic theories of eugenics, undermined whatever scientific basis had been ascribed to the social movement. As the Great Depression took hold, criticism of economic value as a proxy for human worth became increasingly compelling.[136] After the experience of Nazi Germany, many ideas about "racial hygiene" and "unfit" members of society were discredited.[137] The Nuremberg Trials against former Nazi leaders revealed to the world many of the regime's genocidal practices and resulted in formalized policies of medical ethics and the 1950 UNESCO statement on race. Many scientific societies released their own similar "race statements" over the years, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, developed in response to abuses during the Second World War, was adopted by the United Nations in 1948 and affirmed, "Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family."[138] In continuation, the 1978 UNESCO declaration on race and racial prejudice states that the fundamental equality of all human beings is the ideal toward which ethics and science should converge.[139]

In reaction to Nazi abuses, eugenics became almost universally reviled in many of the nations where it had once been popular (however, some eugenics programs, including sterilization, continued quietly for decades). Many pre-war eugenicists engaged in what they later labeled "crypto-eugenics", purposefully taking their eugenic beliefs "underground" and becoming respected anthropologists, biologists and geneticists in the postwar world (including Robert Yerkes in the U.S. and Otmar von Verschuer in Germany).[citation needed] Californian eugenicist Paul Popenoe founded marriage counseling during the 1950s, a career change which grew from his eugenic interests in promoting "healthy marriages" between "fit" couples.

This paper traces the early (1910s to 1920s) development of Swedish eugenics through a study of the social network that promoted it. The eugenics network consisted mainly of academics from a variety of disciplines, but with medicine and biology dominating; connections with German scientists who would later shape Nazi biopolitics were strong. The paper shows how the network used political lobbying (for example, using contacts with academically accomplished MPs) and various media strategies to gain scientific and political support for their cause, where a major goal was the creation of a eugenics institute (which opened in 1922). It also outlines the eugenic vision of the institute's first director, Herman Lundborg. In effect the network, and in particular Lundborg, promoted the view that politics should be guided by eugenics and by a genetically superior elite. The selling of eugenics in Sweden is an example of the co-production of science and social order.

The Swedish eugenics network may have been relatively small but it was never the less historically significant because of its intimate ties with that part of the German eugenics movement that would shape Nazi biopolitics. Leading members of the Swedish network had close contacts with, among others, Erwin Baur, Fritz Lenz, Ernst Rudin and Hans Gunther. Baur was a friend of several Swedish geneticists and from time to time visited the country, sometimes lecturing on eugenics; Lenz likewise made lecture tours in Sweden Rudin had close connections with Swedish eugenicists, some of whom were visiting researchers at his Munich institute Gunther lived in Sweden for some years in the 1920s and lectured at the Swedish institute. Not all early supporters of eugenics in Sweden subscribed to the radical ideas that we associate with these scientists, but the fact that some of its most influential promoters did—not least the director of the race-biological institute—would in effect make Swedish eugenics in the 1920s an important contributor to the right-wing flank of ‘mainline’ or ‘orthodox’ eugenics that would eventually become a pillar of Third Reich biopolitics.

Read also:
Deadly psyche? What's behind it?

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.