Sweden tries to come to terms with history of eugenics

November 14, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

UPPSALA, Sweden -- Checks for more than $22,000 each have been mailed to about 200 Swedes who were forcibly sterilized in decades past after authorities deemed them socially undesirable and unfit to bear children.

But the start of compensation in no way signals closure on one of the most devastating scandals to shake modern Sweden.

Since the disclosure by an investigative journalist nearly three years ago that Swedish authorities sterilized more than 63,000 citizens -- 90 percent of them women -- from 1935 through 1975, fresh revelations have been made by media here of other efforts to perfect Sweden's genetic stock.

More than 200 mentally ill patients were starved to death in 1941-1943 at the Vipeholm hospital in the town of Lund, the newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported earlier this year.

At the same facility a decade later, 400 patients were fed a constant diet of candy as subjects for experiments on the causes of tooth decay.

Swedish television has also alleged that among 4,500 Swedes subjected to lobotomies in 1944-1963 were some homosexuals "treated" against their will.

The Stockholm government appointed a special investigator in 1997 and assigned a nine-member panel of jurists, historians, physicians and politicians to determine how to make amends with sterilization victims. They were also asked to provide "historical elucidation" on how such a policy was allowed to persist in what has long been regarded as a model society.

In April, the panel recommended paying the equivalent of more than $22,000 to each victim and defined standards for judging claims. However, the task of putting eugenics into historical context has proved more daunting; the commission's final report, due this summer, has been indefinitely delayed.

Nor have those wrestling with the matter felt compelled to include the more recent reports of abuse.

"We can't deal seriously with the task before us if we keep putting new aspects into it," Gunnar Broberg, a history professor at Lund University, says of the 1,400 claims brought to the commission by sterilization victims. "Our purpose is, rather, to make life better for the victims at this point in their lives."

Maciej Zaremba, the Polish-born Dagens Nyheter reporter who broke the decades-long silence over the sterilization program, says research into similar practices in the United States and Asia shows disturbingly parallel views in the first half of this century that forced sterilization was an acceptable tool for preventing "undesirables" from breeding.

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