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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 78.1 (2004) 260-262



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Geneviève Heller, Gilles Jeanmonod, and Jacques Gasser, with the collaboration of Jean-François Dumoulin. Rejetées, rebelles, mal adaptées: Débats sur l'eugénisme: Pratiques de la stérilisation non volontaire en Suisse romande au XXe siècle. Bibliothèque d'histoire de la médecine et de la santé. Geneva: Georg, 2002. 480 pp. Ill. Sw. Fr. 64.00 (paperbound, 2-8257-0807-0).

The research team of Geneviève Heller, Gilles Jeanmonod, and Jacques Gasser presents a detailed study of eugenics and the practice of coercive sterilization in the French-speaking part of Switzerland during the twentieth century. It begins with a single case: In the canton of Vaud, Louise, aged twenty-one, was coerced into having an abortion and sterilization. Since childhood, Louise had had a legal guardian and had been confined several times in the local asylum. Her diagnosis was "constitutional psychopathy," and her sterilization was intended to prevent her producing diseased offspring, as the director of the asylum wrote. Today Louise is an elderly woman who loves to knit in her spare time. Although she was asked to agree to her sterilization, she remembers it as a coercive measure. The case of Louise raises a question: Was there a legal background to this measure? Did eugenics exist in democratic Switzerland, and what role did it play in medicine and social politics?

Based on a huge number of similar cases and further material such as scientific articles, reports of political debates, and documents from different medical institutions, including psychiatric and gynecological hospitals and institutions for disabled people, the authors try to answer questions related to this issue in a broad historical perspective. The case of Louise is to be explained in the context of the history of eugenics debates and the practice of sterilization in each of the six French-speaking cantons of Switzerland. [End Page 260]

Without recourse to antipsychiatric clichés, the authors thus explain another inglorious chapter in Swiss history. At the time when the debate about the Swiss bank accounts of Holocaust victims was emerging, it became known that in social-democratic Sweden some ten thousand citizens had been sterilized on the basis of a eugenically motivated law. Thus, the attention of the media was also directed to the first European law to legalize the coerced sterilization of mentally ill and handicapped people in the Swiss canton of Vaud in 1928. Was this a Nazi law avant la lettre? The authors of this book avoid this kind of inadequate conclusion. While the law on sterilization in the canton of Vaud legalized an already ongoing procedure and practice and tried to prevent abuses, the Nazi law on "the prevention of genetically diseased offspring" of 1934 provided the basis for a radicalized eugenics program of mass sterilization without consent.

Indeed, as in other European countries and in the United States since the 1880s, eugenic thinking was very present in Swiss scientific and political discussions, and the practice of sterilization developed as a clinical procedure between 1910 and 1920. Sterilization was seen as a radical eugenic tool, but the operation was also applied for therapeutic purposes. In the cantons of Vaud and Berne (which is partly French-speaking) sterilization was legally regulated in 1928 and 1931, respectively. Requests for sterilizations—which were made mostly by the administrative body, communities, and psychiatrists, and rarely by the persons concerned—had to be addressed to local authorities and were handled following a prescribed procedure. Although the consent of the person concerned was not mandatory, those involved tried to obtain it; and as the authors show, some petitions for sterilization were also rejected. In another Protestant canton, Geneva, while there was an intensive debate on eugenics, the procedure of sterilization remained in the private sphere and was not controlled by the state. On the other hand, there was no eugenics debate or any practice of sterilization in Catholic...

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