Shameful chapter in history of Sweden Sterilization: Almost 63,000 people, more than 90 percent of them women, were rendered infertile at the orders of state authorities during a 40-year national program of eugenics.

Sun Journal

September 10, 1997|By Dean E. Murphy | Dean E. Murphy,LOS ANGELES TIMES

GAVLE, Sweden -- No one could have known, of course. But the view all these years from Maria Nordin's balcony has been a bittersweet reminder of the life she so much wanted but was never allowed to have.

The blessing is that her failing blue eyes -- at the center of her awful story that began 54 years ago -- now prevent her from seeing more than a few yards away.

The playground five stories below, with children dangling from tire swings and mothers trading neighborhood gossip, is beyond her sight.

"Sometimes I just sit there on the balcony," says Nordin, 72, who uses a magnifying glass and bifocals to fill in her crossword puzzles.

"I carry a hatred that never leaves my heart. I have tried to let my hatred go, to melt it down. But it isn't possible for me."

In 1943, when she was 17, Nordin's ovaries were removed on the instructions of the headmistress and physician at a reform school for girls.

She was said to suffer from a "genetic inferiority" that, in the interest of the Swedish welfare state, was best not passed on to offspring.

A lackluster student, Nordin had fallen behind in her studies. Though a school report described her as "kind and obedient and nice in appearance," doctors said her family had a history of alcoholism, promiscuity and mental illness.

In hindsight, it seems remarkable that no one bothered to check her eyes.

Nordin, who had no glasses, says she could barely see the blackboard. Instead, the school doctor classified her as "feeble-minded" and "unable to raise children."

The National Board of Health agreed, and Nordin became one of 1,327 Swedes who were sterilized that year under the country's 8-year-old sterilization program.

She only recently came forward with her secret. Her disclosure, coming late in life as she battles cancer and loneliness, is part of a public examination in Sweden of the little-scrutinized sterilization program, which ended in the 1970s after 62,888 state-sponsored procedures.

Last month, the Swedish government created a national commission to examine the history of the program and to devise a compensation plan for its victims, only a handful of whom have received any damages.

It is the first acknowledgment by the government that the program, though legal, was morally wrong. The admission is likely to result in an official apology to the estimated 20,000 victims still alive.

"I'll never forget when I was called into the headmistress' office," Nordin says. "I hid in the basement bathroom crying all by myself. I was thinking of killing myself, and I have been thinking of it ever since. But I never wanted to give them the satisfaction of getting rid of me."

Inspired by articles in Dagens Nyheter, a Stockholm newspaper, the newfound soul-searching among government officials and some ordinary Swedes has spread to other countries as well.

In recent weeks, sterilization programs in Austria, Switzerland, Norway, Finland, Belgium and the Czech Republic have come under review, even though the policies were legal, largely noncontroversial at the time and pursued by democratically elected governments.

Some U.S. states have histories of sterilization programs, too. The first modern sterilization law in the world was passed in 1907 in Indiana, and the first recorded "eugenic sterilization" -- a vasectomy justified on claims of genetic inferiority -- was performed in 1899 at the Jeffersonville State Prison in Indiana.

What makes the Swedish case different and somehow more appalling, historians say, is that the sterilizations were not restricted to hardened criminals or to the severely mentally retarded already confined to institutions.

By the 1950s, the most common candidate in Sweden was a "socially inferior" or "exhausted" woman seeking an abortion. Though all but the earliest sterilizations were required to be voluntary, men and women were often coerced into agreement. In Nordin's case, sterilization was made a condition of her release from school.

"These acts were barbaric," says Margot Wallstrom, the minister of health and social affairs.

Though Wallstrom has become a leading critic of the sterilizations, her ministry has rejected Nordin's request for compensation.

Former Justice Minister Gun Hellsvik suggested that the accounts of sterilization have caught the attention of political leaders because they point to an abuse of power at a time when the Swedish government had far-reaching authority. The revelations, even if not entirely new, she says, represent a breach of trust.

"When you have such power, you can decide on almost any kind of rules so long as they do not violate the constitution, but that doesn't mean the rules are ethical or justified," Hellsvik says.

"But now we are more aware of how political power affects individual people's lives."

Although the sterilizations were abandoned in 1975, some critics say the shift was more pragmatic than repentant: Abortion was legalized, and effective forms of birth control replaced scalpels.

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