Eugenics and the Welfare State: Sterilization Policy in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland
The Scandinavian welfare state is often glorified as an ideal model of social integration and political stability. Yet lurking behind this success story are less-pleasant achievements—none more ghastly than the sterilization of some 63,000 Swedes between 1935 and 1975. Similar policies were in place in other Scandinavian countries: Denmark introduced a sterilization law in 1929, Norway did the same in 1934, and Sweden and Finland in 1935. It is no surprise, therefore, that the subject has attracted considerable attention, from the academic community and the public alike. Appropriately, in 1996 Gunnar Broberg and Nils Roll-Hansen edited a volume dealing with sterilization policies in the Scandinavian countries, thus offering scholarly treatment of these contentious issues. That volume has now been reissued.
Starting in the late nineteenth century, sterilization was seen as a viable method of social and biological betterment. Particular historical conditions might explain why such a method found supporters in, for example, the United States or Nazi Germany—but in the case of Scandinavia, none of these conditions existed. The contributors to this volume have all been anxious to stress the particularities of sterilization policies in the Scandinavian countries. While the American and German eugenicists often used racial categories to advance their support for sterilization, in the Scandinavian countries the racist argument was rarely present.
The 2005 edition benefits from a new introduction that contextualizes the latest developments in the scholarship on eugenics, in addition to integrating some of the reactions generated by the volume when it was initially published. Individual chapters are kept unaltered from the 1996 edition, thus explaining the persistence of ambiguities in the historical sources and the lack of alternative explanations. This has certainly been noted by the new generation of scholars dealing with these topics, including Øyvind Giæver, Markku Mattila, Alberto Spektorowski, Elisabet Mizrachi, and Alain Drouard.1 [End Page 894]
To be sure, Scandinavian countries were among the first in Europe to embrace the new science of eugenics, as illustrated by the establishment of a Norwegian Consultative Eugenics Committee in 1908, or the Swedish Society for Racial Hygiene, formed in 1909. Leading eugenicists from Scandinavia—such as Søren Hansen, Jon Alfred Mjöen, Herman Lundborg, Tage Kemp, Harr Federley, and Alva and Gunnar Myrdal—were known as activists both in their own countries and abroad. Frequent reference to their work has been made in the secondary literature dealing with the history of German, British, and American eugenics; nonetheless, surprisingly little has been researched on the practical implications of eugenic ideals in Scandinavia, let alone the magnitude of the sterilization policies.
One possible explanation for this lack of attention has been offered by Gunnar Broberg and Mattias Tydén: "The fact that the country [Sweden] stood apart from World War II meant that the eugenic features of its population policies were not automatically re-examined after the war, as was the case of Germany. Nor was there anything to impede continuity with regard to individuals—physicians and specialists—or institutions" (p. 139). But the reluctance to come to terms with the moral implications of sterilization in Sweden (arguably the most devoted to the eugenic cause within the Scandinavian countries) is illustrative of its neighbors' attitudes toward sterilization as well.
The crucial question to be addressed thus becomes: How could countries that avoided the chaos and trauma of war, that were ethnically relatively homogeneous, with some of the most stable and prosperous economies of the time, become so enamored with sterilization? In this book, the general response is to regard the relationship between eugenics and the welfare state as an experiment in social engineering, one veering to an extreme engagement with eugenic sterilization only during the 1930s and 1940s. The description of various sterilization policies (according to gender, or whether they were voluntary or compulsory) ultimately shows modern states attempting to monitor and control the life of their subjects, seeking to create subjects with a single biological identity. Was it, perhaps, that the Scandinavian welfare state was as ruthless in eliminating what it perceived as deviations from the norm as was any other totalitarian state? Regrettably, both editions have failed to offer a convincing answer to this question, indicating that sustained archival research is needed for further critical assessment.
1. See, e.g., Alain Drouard, "Concerning Eugenics in Scandinavia: An Evaluation of Recent Research and Publications," Population: Engl. Selec., 1999, 11: 261-70.