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PREFACE TO THE 2005 EDITION The science of human heredity is unavoidably tied to social politics. In our experience, this also very much applies to the historiography of the subject. A year after this book was first published, its story—the practice of sterilization in the Scandinavian welfare state—was sensationalized in the world’s mass media. This media event in the autumn of 1997 demonstrated both how historical interpretation can be a powerful weapon in political struggles and how a combination of political fashion and media attention can distort historical accounts. The event raised, in a sharp and interesting way, questions concerning truth, honesty, and appropriate behavior for scientists and politicians as well as for journalists. This time the focus was not on the social responsibility and moral integrity of natural science (in this case genetics), but on that of humanistic sciences. Perhaps the event can be taken as a reminder of the close interdependence of natural and humanistic sciences: that they will fall or stand together and that the widening ideological gulf between them is a serious threat to a productive social role for the Western scientific tradition—taking science in the broad continental enlightenment sense including the natural as well as the humanistic sciences. On 20 August 1997 Dagens Nyheter, one of Sweden’s most influential national newspapers, announced that tens of thousands of Swedes were sterilized under compulsion; across Europe only Nazi Germany has exceeded these numbers.1 The somewhat more restrained article substantiating this claim was based on the well-known fact that 63,000 Swedes were sterilized in the period between 1935 and 1975 in accordance with the sterilization law that was enacted by parliament in 1934 and modified in 1941, and that similar laws and policies were typical of Denmark and Norway. This story and the comparison to Nazi Germany caught like wildfire during the following weeks. The Washix ington Post wrote about “a 40-year Nazi-style campaign of forced sterilization.” A Reuter telegram asserted that “Social democratic Swedish governments sterilized 60,000 women to rid society of ‘inferior’ racial types and to encourage Aryan features.” “The laws . . . could have come out of a Nazi text book” declared the Guardian. The Times explained that “Most damning of all was the Swedish government’s willingness to sterilize women because they did not conform to the Aryan image of blonde hair and blue eyes.”2 Apparently the willingness to associate Scandinavian social democracy with Nazism was inspired by a trend of criticism of the welfare state, exposing its authoritarian and anti-liberal aspects. The political message impacted more than a transitory public opinion; the view that Scandinavian countries, led by social democratic regimes, carried out large scale compulsory sterilization as part of a eugenic population policy is now widespread in scholarly literature.3 The spectre of Nazi eugenics hovers over today’s public debates on genetic technologies in human reproduction. Since the 1970s the word eugenics has become strongly associated with Nazism. To characterize a practice or idea as eugenic has been to condemn it as totally unacceptable. Only recently have many philosophers, medical doctors, and others begun to argue for a broader view of eugenics. They have pointed out that new techniques that are now rapidly being introduced have effects, more or less consciously aimed for, that can properly be called eugenic. Some have claimed that policies and practices that improve the genetic quality of a population can be for the greater good, provided they are based on a well-informed free choice by the individuals involved.4 But so far the willingness or interest among historians to approach the complexity in the history of eugenics has been limited. An influential exception is Daniel Kevles, who wrote a 1985 treatise on eugenics in America and Britain.5 He emphasized the difference between what he called mainline and reform eugenics; he defined the former as the segment dominated by authoritarian politics and negligent of the new science of genetics, and the latter as more liberal and observant of individual rights as well as eager to base its policies on the most advanced genetic knowledge. In America mainline attitudes and laws about sterilization dominated from the early twentith century until eugenics went out of fashion by the late 1930s, and in England no sterilization laws were enacted. Scandinavian sterilization laws were introduced mainly in the 1930s under Social Democratic regimes in close consultancy with scientific experts, and the practice of sterilization continued at a high...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781609170028
Related ISBN
9780870137587
MARC Record
OCLC
933516327
Pages
312
Launched on MUSE
2016-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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