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Shining a light into the darker corners

Sweden has the dubious honour of being second only to Third Reich Germany in the number of people sterilised against their will. It is one of those “skeletons in the closet” things, in that the Swedish establishment avoided talking about it for a number of years, preferring to bury this rather sordid aspect of our past by silence.

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Swedish healthy youth – photo Herman Widlund

However, to understand the reasons behind the Swedish legislation that called for sterilisation of those “weak of mind and morals”, we must actually dig into yet another unappetising aspect of the past, namely that of lobotomising – and sadly I must admit that here too, Sweden, together with its Nordic neighbours, leads the pack, performing 2.5 times as many lobotomies per capita as did, f.ex., the US.
It all began in the 19th century. After centuries of locking up the insane among us and forgetting about them, the scientists of the day and age now began to consider whether these poor mental wrecks could be treated somehow. Specifically, they were interested in “curing” those among the mentally insane that could be dangerous due to high aggressiveness in combination with a lot of brute strength. Most mental institutions of the time had one or two such individuals, poor things kept constantly fettered so as to ensure they did not attack their carers or the other inmates.
In 1847, there was an unfortunate accident in the US. A major explosion, and one of the men present was struck by a shard of metal that penetrated the skull bone and buried itself in the poor man’s frontal lobe. Miraculously – or not – he survived, but his previously so outgoing and positive personality was permanently changed, the damage to his brain making him surly and uncommunicative. And relatively passive. Hmm, said the scientists of the day and age, how interesting. Imagine if the person struck by that shard of steel had been an aggressive monster, would the damage have changed that personality too?
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Dr Burckhardt

In the 1880s a certain Doctor Gottlieb Burckhardt performed the first known cerebral surgery. His theory was that if one could disconnect certain parts of the brain from the others, then one could produce a benign effect on patients considered incurably – and violently – insane. In total, he operated on six people. One died, two showed no signs of improvement, two became calmer, and one markedly improved. The good doctor claimed a 50% success ratio, but his colleagues were not impressed – in fact, they were quite hostile to the notion of invading someone’s brain, so Dr Burckhardt never did any further attempts. But some people took note, of course, and over the years eager scientists continued to investigate further.
In 1935, American neurosurgeon John Fulton presented a paper based on tests performed on monkeys whereby a severing of the frontal lobe from the rest of the brain caused a marked reduction in aggressiveness. One Portuguese gentleman, Antonio E Moniz was very impressed and hastened home to apply this new technology on human patients. At the time, this was a crude procedure, in which holes were drilled through the temple bone of the not-so-sedated patient, and a blunt instrument inserted to root about – blindly – in the brain. Very many died, but among the survivors, quite a few became calmer – still psychotic, but no longer capable of acting out based on their hallucinations.
In 1936, Walter Freeman performed the first successful lobotomy in the US. He would go on to become the leading authority on lobotomies, and would also develop a new method whereby a long and sharp needle was inserted through the eye socket (!) instead, generally on a fully awake patient. It is said Mr Freeman would have the patient sing while he performed the surgery, and only when they started muddling the words would he be satisfied he had been successful in permanently maiming the functions of the frontal lobe.
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Sweden: where we came from

Back to Sweden: By the early 1930s, Sweden was in the grips of building a Brave New World, a society built on the backs and shoulders of a clean and healthy people, where everyone contributed to the greater good. Were there racist aspects involved? To a point, yes – after all, Sweden was in the forefront when it came to race biology. Already in 1922, Sweden had its own Institute of Race Biology which had as its targets to safeguard the Aryan Swedish race from dilution. More of this in a future post – it is a complicated subject.
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Sweden: what we aimed for

However, the new society the Swedish Social Democrats were intent on building was not about race. It was about creating social equality, driving productivity and promoting a wholesome lifestyle. Were the poster boys and girls mostly blond and blue-eyed? Yes, but more for the obvious reason that most Swedish people were blond and blue-eyed. The Swedish Folkhemmet (The home of our people) was all about being inclusive – assuming you pulled your weight.
Folkhemmet did not want warts and wrinkles. Human warts were, for example, the mentally insane. Other such warts were the simple-minded, simply for the reason that they would not be able to contribute as they should to the new society. There were concerns about the galloping costs of caring for the insane – on average, 4 000 new patients per year were admitted to mental asylums. There were also major, major concerns that these people breed, thereby passing on their unwanted genes to the next generation and soiling the vision of the perfect society.
This is the background to the legislation of 1934, according to which people deemed mentally deficient could be forcibly sterilised. If a doctor diagnosed them as being less than all there, chances were they’d be sterilised – especially if they were women, as everyone knew weak-minded women were prone to sleeping around and becoming pregnant with all sorts. By the late mid-thirties, sterilisation was combined with that fantastic new surgical procedure, lobotomy.
Now and then, lobotomy did work. Now and then. But mostly it caused irreversible damage and permanent changes to the personality. Plus very many died, given that the procedure essentially had the doctors poking about blindly in the patients’ heads. The general take on these deaths seems to have been that it was sad that they died, but seeing as these were simple-minded, unproductive people, it was no major loss to society…
sterilisering bild1However, lobotomy was not enough to safeguard society against future generations of mentally ill or generally deficient people. No, doctors argued, lobotomy had to be combined with an extensive sterilisation scheme. Unfortunately, as per these people, the sterilisation laws of 1934 were very inflexible: sterilisation could only be done on people deemed mentally unfit. (Race, gender, social circumstances did not come into play. Officially, that is. Unofficially, men were rarely sterilised.) This had to be changed, and through vociferous lobbying, the proponents of en-masse sterilisation managed to push through new laws in 1941.
This legislation required that the patient “consent” to the measure. Instructions from the medical authorities were very clear: it was okay to bring major pressure to bear on the selected candidates to make them consent. Major pressure could be everything from threatening to take their children from them to locking them up in an asylum and throw away the key until the poor bastard relented.
Effectively, this new law opened for major possibilities when it came to sterilising the “unwanted”. Unwanted were all those who cost more than they contributed, who lacked moral backbone, who did not fit into the various pigeonholes that made up the Folkhemmet.  And yet again, it was the women who were targeted. The reason for the focus on female patients is that at the time, women were held responsible for men’s sexual behaviour. Obviously, a mentally or otherwise deficient woman would be incapable of fending off lusty males, thereby producing an endless string of offspring that would be nothing but a burden to society. After all, the costs for care and lobotomies (or the medicines that replaced them in the 1950s) was very, very high.
Women wanting an abortion would only get it if they agreed to being sterilised. Single mothers were hounded and bullied into being sterilised. Young girls of “dubious morals” were whisked off and interned until their parents reluctantly agreed to having them sterilised. Wives of men who drank too much, who beat their women and children, were urged to sterilise themselves – or lose whatever housing benefits they might have.
In 1948, Sweden implemented a child benefit system. The benefit was paid to the mother of the child, and all those wanting the benefits had to sign up. By signing up, you became registered, and if you were unmarried and a mother, society would keep a very beady eye on you. Should there be another baby while the woman was still unmarried, chances were you’d lose all benefits – unless you underwent a sterilisation.
The personal tragedies were multiple: a thirteen-year-old girl was locked up based on vague accusations from women in her village that she was sleeping around. In reality, these women were jealous of the girl, who trounced their daughters in every skiing event, but seeing as the girl trained with the boys, the mothers found it obvious she wasn’t only practising skiing, but also spreading her legs. The girl was 19 – and sterilised – when she returned home after six years in institutions.
Women of gypsy background often ended up dragged away to be sterilised. The gypsy way of life was offensive to the builders of the Folkhemmet, and people who willingly chose to live in caravans instead of in new apartments had to have something wrong with their heads, ergo it was best to sterilise them.
Priests were known to pass on suspicions about women of loose morals to the doctor who would then act with impunity. Schoolteachers did the same. In the 1950s and -60s, the doctors, teachers and priests were the pillars of society and no one was about to question their judgement.
And then, in the late 1960s, came the first setbacks. The first generation of feminists were on the move, demanding equal rights in all matters – including sexual freedom. The right to free abortion became a major issue. In Sweden, abortion had been allowed since 1938, assuming there were strong enough reasons, such as the pregnancy being the result of a brutal rape, or the future child potentially not living up to expectations on future Swedish citizens (i.e. was damaged, or potentially damaged due to its parents). All such abortions required the approval of a medical board – and was in many cases followed by a sterilisation. Now people were demanding the woman should be allowed to choose if she wanted an abortion yes or no – without presenting any reasons or being subjected to a sterilisation.
In 1974, Sweden adopted new laws on abortions, effectively rendering the 1941 laws regarding sterilisation toothless. In 1975, the sterilisation laws were repelled. During the 40 years they’d been in place, 63 000 people had been sterilised, of which 90% were women. Folkhemmet required healthy, productive citizens, and the women deemed incapable of birthing such individuals had to be stopped from conceiving – for good. A major, major tragedy, a gigantic blot on Swedish recent past – and something we must never forget!

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