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Seminar on Eugenics, Welfare State and the Nordic countries: 

Public debates on the social role of forced sterilisations in Nordic countries break a culture of silence

The revelations about forced sterilisations in the Nordic countries until the 1970s have weakened further the public’s respect for scientists and experts. The personal tragedies of people who were involuntarily sterilised because of real or supposed mental or physical disabilities have shaken people, especially in Sweden, but also in other Nordic countries.

The ramifications of the scandal were examined at a seminar on eugenics held at the Finnish Institute. Professor Marjatta Hietala from the University of Tampere reminded the British and Nordic participants that in Finland in particular the diminished credibility of experts is significant because the professionals have traditionally been very influential. Professional specialisation has been highly valued.

"In a small homogenous country it was easy to mobilise people in matters like eugenics because people trusted the professionals. The role of experts was considered important in changing the society," she said.

Thus there was very little opposition to the sterilisation law in Finland which was passed in 1935. Support for the law had also been whipped up by the press which had published exaggerated reports about the number of mentally ill or retarded people in the country. The number of people sterilised between 1935-1955 was 1,908 of whom 276 were men. After 1970 no more involuntary sterilisations have been carried out.

According to Professor Hietala, the influence of German eugenics was very strong among the Finnish medical profession. Fears about the degeneration of the population –which was typical during the early decades of the century – merged with strong nationalist feelings.

Markku Mattila from the University of Tampere pointed out, however, that there was a difference between eugenics and racism. While racism was aimed against outsiders, eugenics worried about the "pureness" of one’s own group.

"The difference is important even if later the two started going down the same way," Mattila said.

Professor Gunnar Broberg from the University of Lund reminded that eugenics in the 1930s was not so much about race as about avoiding hereditary diseases. Seen as progress, the idea of improving the physical and mental quality of human beings gained also leftist sympathies. But then the German holocaust revealed the sinister side of eugenics. Finally, in the 1950s Unesco deemed the concept of race as unscientific.

Broberg pointed out that the information about forced sterilisations has always been available. Instead of a culture of secrecy, there has been a culture of silence. Victims of the policy often didn’t tell their nearest family and friends.

It seems that only international attention to Swedish media reports broke the story in a big way.

One of the paradoxes of modern times is that as the credibility of experts has weakened, people actually need professional advice more than ever before. This was pointed out by Professor Pekka Sulkunen from the Finnish National Research and Development Centre for Welfare and Health. Sulkunen noted that even life itself is now under dispute.

"In earlier times there was consensus about what formed a good life. There were collective aims and institutions to pursue the good life. Now there is no agreement. Whose version of a good life should we choose? Who decides? What if one person’s good life limits the other persons’ good life? There is no agreement what progress means."

According to Professor Sulkunen, people have also become more individualistic and are reluctant to give the state the authority to decide about their lives. But they need experts to explain the choices available, especially in highly scientific matters like gene testing.

Professor Broberg responded that the only way to get out of the impasse of impossible choices is to pass laws and rules which help to regulate social life.

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