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A Victim of Sweden’s Pursuit of Perfection

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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, mercifully is beyond her sight.

“Sometimes I just sit there on the balcony,” said Nordin, 72, who uses a magnifying glass and bifocals to fill in her favorite 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, at age 17, Nordin had her ovaries removed on the instructions of the headmistress and consulting physician at a reform school for girls. In the parlance of the time, she was said to suffer a “genetic inferiority” that, in the interest of the Swedish welfare state, was best not passed on to offspring.

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A lackluster student, Nordin had fallen hopelessly behind in her studies, and although 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 implausible 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 “feebleminded” and “unable to raise children.” The National Board of Health concurred, and Nordin became one of 1,327 Swedes sterilized that year under the country’s then 8-year-old sterilization program.

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

Last week, the Swedish government took the unusual step of creating 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, although legal, was wrong, and the admission is likely to result in an official apology to the estimated 20,000 victims still living.

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“I’ll never forget when I was called into the headmistress’ office,” Nordin said. “I was aware of it well before. 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.”

Newfound Soul-Searching

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

In the past week, sterilization programs in Austria, Switzerland, Norway, Finland, Belgium and the former Czechoslovakia have come under new review, even though the policies were legal, largely noncontroversial at the time and pursued by mostly democratically elected governments.

Many U.S. states have records of similar practices, including California, where 4,310 patients at the Sonoma State Home were sterilized between 1919 and 1943. 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.

But what makes the Swedish situation different and somehow more appalling, historians say, is that the sterilizations were not restricted to hardened criminals or 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. Although all but the earliest sterilizations were required to be voluntary, targeted 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,” said Health and Social Affairs Minister Margot Wallstrom, who has become a leading critic of Sweden’s practices but whose ministry just last year rejected Nordin’s request for compensation. “We should call things by their right name. Today, of course, we strongly condemn these acts, and they can never be defended.”

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History professor Gunnar Broberg, who co-wrote a book in 1991 on sterilization in Sweden, said changing public attitudes toward the program reflect a general shift here and elsewhere toward individual rather than collective rights.

The Swedish sterilization laws, passed in 1934 and 1941, were considered tools for advancing the common good, even if it meant sacrificing some individuals. Intentions were nothing but pure, Broberg said.

“The idea of individual happiness is now very typical of our times,” said Broberg, a professor at the University of Lund in southern Sweden. “But it wasn’t always like that. In Sweden, beginning in the 1930s, decisions about children were considered best handled by the government, not the individual. Now we would put it the other way around.”

Former Justice Minister Gun Hellsvik said recent accounts of sterilization practices 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 over everyday life. The revelations, even if not entirely new, show a breach of trust, she said.

“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 said. “Of course, now we can say that we should have realized this earlier. But now we are more aware of how political power affects individual people’s lives.”

So dramatic has been the change in perception that some observers have likened the “genetic cleansing” in Sweden to the “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the violent campaign, principally by Serbs but also by Muslims and Croats, to eject rivals from their areas during that country’s war. That distressful comparison strikes at the core of Swedes’ self-image as an enlightened and compassionate people.

It also has come as a jolt to admirers of the Swedish welfare model that the sterilizations were conceived as an important building block in the young welfare state, primarily for ridding society of its least desirable--and economically draining--elements. The biggest proponents of the two sterilization laws were the Social Democrats, architects of the ever-changing but still highly valued cradle-to-grave social system here.

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And although the sterilizations were abandoned in 1975, some critics say the shift was more pragmatic than repentant as abortion was legalized and effective forms of birth control replaced scalpels.

Equally unsettling has been the realization that a vast majority of the victims--more than 90%--were women, in a society that has prided itself on equality between the sexes.

“People are seeing another side of the welfare state that they simply couldn’t imagine possible,” said Maija Runcis, who has examined 8,000 sterilization cases as part of her doctoral research at Stockholm University. “When I first read the files, I was absolutely shocked. Then I became angry.”

Carl Bildt, an opposition leader and former Swedish prime minister who until recently served as the international representative in Bosnia, wrote to the government that “Swedish society risks being injured” by the sterilization debate unless there is a full accounting. “It is of great importance that a truthful picture of what occurred be placed on the table,” he said.

The promised government inquiry will have plenty of information. Scholars and journalists have looked into this subject for years. Technical books have been written, documentaries aired on television and radio, and, beginning in the 1960s, an occasional objection has been raised in Parliament, most notably by Olof Palme, who was then education minister but rose to the job of prime minister before his 1986 assassination.

Not a Topic of Conversation

But somehow the subject never resonated outside small circles of experts and victims. The sterilizations, performed for about 40 years and required under two acts of Parliament, have never been mentioned in textbooks or Swedish encyclopedias, according to research by Dagens Nyheter.

“That is what is scary,” said Hellsvik, the former justice minister. “In the past, we haven’t discussed it. We kept it away from us.”

Even now, public reaction has been relatively muted; Swedish media at first showed little interest in the Dagens Nyheter series, with most inquiries coming from news outlets abroad. Runcis, whose research served as the basis for the newspaper stories, said she had given more than two dozen interviews--mostly to foreign journalists--before Swedish television called to question her at length last week.

Maciej Zaremba, the main reporter of the Dagens Nyheter series, who is of Polish origin, told a Warsaw newspaper that Swedes have been low key about the sterilization laws because the country’s most influential professionals--lawyers, doctors and politicians--went along with it. “On this issue, everyone has a skeleton in his closet and there are no saints,” Zaremba said.

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The origins of the Swedish program can be traced to the study of eugenics, an emerging science in the early 20th century that also was known as race biology. Eugenics had adherents around the world, including the United States, but the Swedes were the first to establish a national institute for race biology in 1922.

The driving belief behind the movement was the decisive role of heredity in shaping humankind. In Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, the intent was to preserve and strengthen “superior Nordic virtues,” believed to be of genetic, rather than social or environmental, making. The first to be sterilized in Sweden under the 1934 Sterilization Act were the mentally retarded and legally incompetent--"to prevent the procreation of a sick or inferior offspring,” according to a government report.

‘Better to Go a Little Too Far’

In 1941, it was decided to enlarge the program to include people deemed to exhibit antisocial behavior. According to research quoted in writings by Broberg and fellow historian Mattias Tyden, Social Democrat politician Karl Johan Olsson argued for the broader law, saying it was justified even if only “one or two antisocial individuals who might be fit for breeding purposes” were sterilized.

“I think it is better to go a little too far than to risk bringing unfit and inferior offspring into the world,” Olsson said in the 1941 debate.

Although the notion of eugenics was hijacked and retooled by Hitler to justify the mass extermination of Jews and others in World War II, the Swedish application managed to survive the horrors of Nazi Germany--and the scrutiny of its aftermath--relatively unscathed.

Some media accounts of the Swedish program make references to “Nazi-like” techniques, but Swedish historians say the similarities disappeared in the early years. The Nazi and Swedish sterilization policies were both rooted in race, but the Swedish emphasis soon shifted to social and economic behavior rather than the creation of a master Nordic people, the historians say.

“It wasn’t a question of race, whether you were black, white or yellow,” said Runcis, the doctoral student at Stockholm University. “It was about people’s quality. . . . The view of the social welfare state was that everyone has the same rights, but you have to behave yourself and act like a ‘typical Swede.’ ”

Runcis said medical records on sterilization include countless judgments about social behavior that was deemed threatening because people were difficult or unusual. As such, she said, the victims were misfits in a collective society that cherished uniformity above all.

She is not a good mother, the sterilization report would charge. She looks like a prostitute. She quarrels with her husband. Her children are dirty. She goes dancing until late. She does not know her church lessons. Her father is a vagrant and a loafer. The whole family is “subnormal.”

“I am not a doctor, so I can’t evaluate the medical claims. I can only tell you what I’ve read in the records--and I found a horrible history that no one seems to know about,” Runcis said.

In Nordin’s case, she had three strikes against her: She came from a problem family, was a poor student and had been sent to a reform school where systematic sterilization was the norm. According to one study, one-third of girls released from Swedish special schools between 1937 and 1956 had been sterilized.

At the Hoghhammarskolan school in Bollnas, where Nordin spent a decade, the rules were so unbending that she was not even allowed to go home for her mother’s funeral. The mail was opened and screened. Every girl there, Nordin said, lived with the terrifying knowledge that her day would come. There was no question of saying no.

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To this day, Nordin remains bitter and angry about those years. The name of the headmistress, Astrid Ekemalm, rolls spitefully off Nordin’s tongue, as does that of the physician, Dr. Ingvarsson. Both are dead, she said, but in the 1960s, she and her husband once confronted them. “They are lies--'feebleminded’ and all those other words they said about me,” Nordin explained. “They ruined me.”

Ekemalm showed no remorse upon meeting Nordin two decades later, while Ingvarsson reminded her that the surgery was irreversible and suggested she get on with her life. Neither seemed to care that Nordin had proved them wrong: She went right from school to a foster home, where she cared for five children for more than six years. Once she got glasses, Nordin said, her life changed for the better. She ran a florist’s shop, managed a cafeteria and worked as a nurse’s aide in a retirement home.

She drove a car until 1989, when her nearsightedness got so bad, even with corrective lenses, that she gave up her license. She also has gotten divorced and has undergone four operations for stomach cancer, which now seems to be in check. Life, once again, was unraveling. “It was getting really hard the last few years,” Nordin said.

The Sorrow of Having No Children

Then one morning last year, she happened upon an article in the local newspaper here in Gavle, about 100 miles northwest of Stockholm, about a woman awarded compensation for having been sterilized. She called her friend Elsie, who prepares her taxes, and said she needed to talk to her right away.

Maria dictated while Elsie wrote.

“They said that I was feebleminded and uneducable and therefore I should not have children,” she told the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs. “That has always been my greatest sorrow. Unfortunately, so many people ask me again and again why my husband and I didn’t have any children. I couldn’t bear to answer all of those questions.”

The ministry rejected the claim because Nordin had signed a consent form and because damages have been awarded only to those few who have proved that officials did not follow the law in administering the sterilization. But her application opened her story to the public. Suddenly, Nordin began confiding to her friends. A journalist called. Then another. Before long, she was telling the world. Nothing has made her happier.

“The biggest relief,” she said, “is that people finally understand that I am the one telling the truth about me.”

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Murphy, The Times’ Warsaw Bureau chief, was recently on assignment in Sweden.


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