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Payments to Forcibly Sterilized Don't End Shame in Sweden

World Report | EUROPE

November 13, 1999|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UPPSALA, Sweden — Checks for more than $22,000 each have been mailed to about 200 Swedes who were forcibly sterilized in past decades after authorities deemed them socially undesirable and unfit to bear children. But the start of compensation in no way signals closure in one of the most devastating scandals to shake modern Sweden.

Since the revelation by an investigative journalist nearly three years ago that Swedish authorities had sterilized more than 63,000 citizens--90% of them women--from 1935 through 1975, fresh disclosures 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 1941-43 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, meanwhile, has alleged that among 4,500 Swedes lobotomized between 1944 and 1963 were some homosexuals who were "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 to sterilization victims. The panelists also were asked to provide "historical elucidation" of 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, which was due over the summer, has been indefinitely delayed.

Nor have those wrestling with the sordid legacy felt compelled to broaden the investigation 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 sterilization was an acceptable tool for preventing "undesirables" from breeding.

"Aggressive eugenics was introduced almost everywhere in the world by socially conscious people engaged in caring for the poor," Zaremba says. "Eugenics was absolutely not a Nazi invention. The Nazis just pushed it to excess, starting with sterilizations and ending with the gas chambers."

Kerstin Hagenfeldt, a gynecologist on the investigative panel, confirms that, until the law changed in 1974 to forbid sterilization without informed consent, there was little introspection even in the medical community.

"People didn't discuss it. It was generally accepted as the correct way to handle the problem," she says.

The panel has approved most of more than 200 applications for compensation, except in cases in which claimants have died since approaching the commission or the applicants were never sterilized, says Leif Persson, secretary to the investigator.

The panel expects to get through the remaining caseload by the end of the year. Few new claims are expected, as the issue already has been widely publicized in Sweden, Persson says.

Still, those delving into the ugly chapter of medical history here acknowledge that there will never be full restitution.

"I had an 82-year-old woman call me who had been sterilized at 18," says law professor Carl-Gustaf Andren, the special investigator, of a woman misdiagnosed as a slow learner.

"She had married and adopted two daughters. She never told her husband or others about what had happened to her because it was too painful. But she wanted me to know there were those like her out there who would never come forward," Andren says.

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