The word ‘eugenics’ is derived from two Greek words, “eu” and “genes”. Loosely translated, the two terms mean ‘well’ and ‘born’.1 As such, eugenic is defined as the practice of improving human genes by promoting the development and sustenance of their positive elements. The positive aspects, in this case, entail the reproduction of subjects with admirable characteristics and traits. After observing how animals mate, some experts realized that they can improve the human race by making sure that people ‘breed well’.
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Eugenic policies are described as a set of rules advocating for this new way of breeding. It was practiced in some parts of Europe in the 20th century. Strong men were selected to mate with the most attractive women. On their part, the women chose the men they wanted to marry and bear children with. In chapter 1 of their book, Agar gives the story of an inventor who redefined the idea of eugenics. Agar states that “The Repository (owned by Robert Graham in 1978) would offer the sperm of exceptional men to women unable, or unwilling, to become pregnant by their husbands”.2 The scenario is an indication of how seriously people took the issue of eugenics in the 20th century.
As a social philosophy, eugenic sought to improve hereditary traits among humans by creating perfect individuals. The policy was also aimed at reducing human suffering by eliminating such incidences as disabilities. Some of the strategies used in achieving this were regarded as inhuman. Scandinavians, for example, were forced to undergo sterilization to limit ‘negative’ breeding.
The current paper is written against this backdrop of eugenic practices in early societies. The author will look at eugenic policies and programs in the United States, Germany, and Scandinavian countries. Also, factors that led to the introduction of these practices in the Nordic region will be reviewed. The paper will focus on the policies as they were practiced in the Scandinavian countries in the twentieth century.
History of Eugenics
The term eugenic was coined by Francis Galton. Sir Galton got the idea from Charles Darwin, his cousin. After studying animals and plants for a long time, Darwin believed that it was possible to breed organisms in a positive manner.3 The theory was later applied to human beings. By the 20th century, some governments in Europe promoted the application of this new theory. It was believed that eugenics would lead to the creation of an improved generation of humans.
In this theory, some people are termed as ideal parents based on the quality of their genes. Others are regarded as unfit to bear children. Smart, loving, intelligent, and kind persons are the perfect candidates with regards to the reproduction of a bright future generation. On the contrary, those who are mentally ill, disabled, and poor are believed to be unfit for reproduction.4 In addition, some ethnic groups are referred to as ‘aberrant’ generations.
Galton was succeeded by Karl Pearson. The latter came up with the idea of biometry. Before Galton died, he was afraid his work may become extinct. To avoid this, he helped establish the University College of National Eugenics. Pearson founded the Galton Laboratories for National Eugenics. Charles Davenport is another influential figure in this field. Unlike Galton who majored in British eugenics, Davenport focused on America, his home country.5
Galton’s intentions may have been genuine. However, as Agar puts it, “(He) could not have foreseen the evil that would be done in eugenics’ name. This evil took its most concentrated form in the racist doctrine of human perfection promoted by the Nazis”.6 The Nazis and other unscrupulous politicians hijacked the policies to achieve their personal objectives.
Every country had its own way of employing this new theory. In most cases, individuals who were regarded as unfit members of society were identified and separated from the rest. However, efforts to eradicate poor quality genes led to cases of genocide in countries like Germany. Euthanasia was one of the strategies used to uphold eugenics. After isolation, practices like sterilization were carried out on the unfit individuals to prevent reproduction.7 In Germany, some of these patients were treated as guinea pigs.
Eugenic practices supported various elements of society to the extent that it became accepted as an academic discipline. It was offered as a course in institutions of higher learning. The policies have a long history in America. They were first established in 1900. The practice later spread to other parts of the western world. In Germany, eugenic doctrines were used by some individuals to justify racism. International bodies like IFEO (International Federation of Eugenic Organisations) were put in place to address issues arising from this practice. The organization worked on the assumption that human beings were unequal from birth.8 The organization even advocated for the passing of laws allowing the sterilization of individuals. The laws were one of the reasons why some people were forced to undergo the procedure.
By the end of World War II, eugenic practices had diminished. Genocide, either to promote eugenics or for other purposes, was treated as a serious crime. The developments led to a decline in the application of eugenics. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and other organizations argued against these practices. The critics were especially opposed to those practices that aimed at victimizing selected persons, such as the disabled.9
The Status of Eugenics in Scandinavia and other Contemporary Societies
In the modern world, beliefs that ‘good’ people should bear children while ‘bad’ individuals should not are regarded as contemporary forms of eugenics. Practices like Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) have been put in place to enhance positive breeding. Before one is termed as a potential candidate for the procedure, they have to undergo some tests. In the process, diseases associated with sex and genetics are controlled.
Clinics offering PGD also help in the family ‘balancing’. It is important to note that allowing PGD in women can lead to polygamy and prostitution. As a result, finding a suitable female candidate may prove difficult. PGD raises strong and conflicting emotions and opinions regarding human reproduction. Bodies mainly concerned with disability rights criticize this practice. They argue that the definition of disease by practitioners who engage in this activity is subjective. Women rights organizations also argue that giving birth should not be based on the character traits of the fetus. People with disabilities have to accept the fact that technologies enabling the selection of quality genes do not favor them.10 In the 20th century, tens of thousands of people with disabilities were sterilized in Scandinavia and other European countries.11
Eugenics in Scandinavia
Scandinavia is a cultural term that originally referred to the Danish region, which is currently regarded as Swedish. It is located in Northern Europe and consists of three kingdoms. The three are Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. It was developed in the eighteenth century when the idea of common heritage was more appealing. Most cultural practices in this region were borrowed from the Germans. As such, eugenics was a common practice. The Nordic region is made up of four countries.
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The four include Scandinavia and Finland.12 Eugenics was practiced in the four countries from the early 1930s to late 1970s. For example, between 1934 and 1976, a total of 40,891 cases of sterilization were reported in Norway.13 The procedures were part of the wider eugenics program in the country.14 The practice received support from various groups in society. The thought of re-producing a perfect generation was very appealing to some people.
Factors that Promoted the Use of Eugenics across Scandinavia in the 20th Century
The idea of producing healthy and intelligent children was a major reason behind the application of eugenic practices. It was highly advisable for couples to re-produce when their physical and mental powers were at the maximum. Through this selective breeding, the future society was expected to be ideal. Future children will not be a burden to society.15 It was believed that the resultant ideal generation will promote the economy of the country. Eugenics was viewed as a form of salvation from degeneration and moral decay. Lombardo states that “By the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory enhanced fears of degeneration. Many worried that repeated generations of debased living could reverse evolutionary processes….”.16 Lombardo’s sentiments capture some of the motivations behind the adoption of eugenics in the 20th century.
Porter agrees with Lombardo by stating that the same Darwinian theories that elicited fears were used to deal with the degeneration problem. Porter states that “When Galton first attempted to translate the study of heredity into a social science of eugenics, his aim was the ‘possible improvement of the human breed’”.17
In the 19th century, many countries were experiencing rapid changes brought about by modernization and industrialization. There were urbanization and growth of industries.18 The development led to the emergence of slums, which increased to accommodate the high number of people living in urban centers. Poverty increased as the number of people rose beyond the level that could be supported by the economy comfortably. Eugenics practices were put in place in response to these negative elements of industrialization. It was believed that poverty from an early age can cause harm to the child.19
In Denmark, eugenics was inspired by the need to address the ‘rot’ in society. Drouard captures this vividly by stating that, “The case of Danish eugenics (was) studied by Bengt Sigurd Hansen in a chapter bearing the Shakespearean title, <>”.20 The statement by Drouard indicates that hygiene was another factor behind the use of eugenics in Scandinavia. The Swedish Society for Racial Hygiene and other organizations were instrumental in educating the masses on the importance of ethnic purity. Public lectures and publications were some of the methods used in educating the community.21 However, with time, eugenics became a controversial topic. Human rights bodies argued that it is unethical to limit the process of childbearing.
A Comparison between American and Scandinavian Eugenics
Just like in the Scandinavian countries, eugenics in the United States was driven by the idea that humans had the ability to direct their own evolution.22 The idea was widely accepted and institutions of higher learning offered these courses to more than twenty thousand students. Scholars and scientists promoted these practices in the Scandinavian countries. An example of organizations created through these laws includes The American Association for the Study and Prevention of Infant Mortality. It was the first entity to investigate mortality rates after the introduction of eugenics. Its major objective was to enhance the health of future generations. The entity was similar to others created in Scandinavia to achieve the same objectives.
The first sterilization rule was passed in Indiana in 1907. The law was later modified by the Supreme Court in 1921. Several states in America incorporated this new rule into their legal structures. The courts gave authority to the states to sterilize anyone termed as unfit.23
Women were viewed as ‘couriers’ in the childbearing process. As such, they were more targeted by sterilization laws compared to men. Men were neutered to eliminate bad behavior and overcome aggression in society. Programs used to enhance eugenic policies included euthanasia, ‘better baby’ contests, and ‘fitter family for future’ campaigns. Specialists were used to judging these programs and winners were awarded medals.
A Comparative Analysis between Eugenics in Germany and in Scandinavia
Adolf Hitler believed that the nation had become weak and corrupt due to the degeneration and deterioration of members of the community. The population suffered a lot as a result of World War I. After the war, the government had to come up with ways to restore the health and physical wellbeing of the remaining population.
Like in Scandinavia, Hitler believed that the only way to restore the country was through racial hygiene and eugenic.24 As a result, the Nazis put in place laws that made sure every case of hereditary illness was reported. A total of 400000 individuals were sterilized at the time.25 The administration became so brutal to the extent that attempts to show USA eugenics were different from those adopted by the Nazi party were initiated. Drouard illustrates the differences between the practices in Scandinavia and in Germany by stating that, “…Scandinavian eugenics is theoretically defined as a ‘voluntary’ form of eugenics”.26
Spektorowski and Mizrachi support Drouard’s arguments in their comparison between eugenics in Germany and in Sweden. According to Spektorowski and Mizrachi, “At first glance, it seems unfeasible to pair Nazism with the Swedish welfare state”.27 However, it is clear that the practices in the two regions went against an individual’s human rights.28
Forced Sterilisation in Sweden
The country had some of the strongest policies regarding eugenics in Scandinavia. In 1927, the Swedish parliament put in place legislations regarding sterilization. Measures were put in place to identify those who were to undergo the procedure. For example, if an individual possessed undesired genes like insanity and hereditary illnesses, sterilization was recommended. In addition, policies were formulated to ensure that pregnancies did not risk the life of the mother.
Finally, if the individual was unable to ‘stand-in’ a child due to an illness, then they were sterilized.29 However, with time, these medical procedures reduced in number. Laws informing these practices were termed as vicious and barbaric. At some point, the Swedish government decided to compensate those who were subjected to this process. However, not everyone who underwent sterilization was remunerated. It is unclear why such brutal actions lasted for so long.
Eugenics in Britain
Like in Scandinavia, the eugenics movement was successful in Britain. It was promoted through social theory and politics. In addition, scientific ideas were used to support the movement. Personal qualities were believed to be hereditary. The practice was characterized by positive and negative elements. Roll-Hansen defines these concepts by stating that, “Two kinds of eugenics have traditionally been distinguished, positive and negative. Positive eugenics aims to enhance the genetic quality by conscious selection (of advantageous genes). Negative eugenics aims to prevent transmission (of disadvantageous genes)”.30
However, both of these approaches were regarded as oppressive. People with desirable hereditary traits were encouraged to marry and have many children. The move was regarded as a form of positive eugenics. On the other hand, unfit individuals were discouraged from engaging in parenthood, leading to negative eugenics.31
The practice was necessary to ensure that the future population was of high quality. The increasing number of people with disabilities in Britain informed the adoption of eugenics. Furthermore, it was a British man, Galton, who originally came up with the idea after studying the behaviors of plants and animals. Politicians and opinion-makers were among the first groups of people to embrace this movement. Eugenicists were so influential in British politics to the extent that commissions discouraging marriage between “unfit” couples were formed. The blind, deaf, and dumb were discouraged from engaging in reproduction.32 Beliefs that a disabled child was unnecessary in society had taken root.
Eugenic Practices in Other Countries
Countries like Britain and America have made efforts to make sure that the disabled feel appreciated in the community. During the eugenics era, these individuals were regarded as unfit members of society. They were viewed as a burden to others. The empowerment of the disabled persons created the impression that there was a difference between eugenics in German Nazi and America.33 However, the fact remains that the practice was inhumane in both countries, just like in Scandinavia. America encouraged Germany to embrace eugenics.
The relationship between the European and Scandinavian countries with regards to eugenics is disturbing. The practice led to genocides and other forms of violence against individuals. The countries supported sterilization to arrest the spread of disabilities and other health issues in the region.34 The governments took extreme measures by forcing individuals to undergo the procedure.
The Rise and Fall of Eugenics in Scandinavia
Attempts to improve the social life of citizens in Scandinavia led to the adoption of eugenics practices. People with disabilities were viewed as cumbersome in society as they had to be helped in their daily activities. Eugenics reached its peak by the end of the 20th century.35 Hitler had put in place programs to create a super race in Germany. His strategy augured well with eugenics. Sterilization laws were popular in Scandinavia and other European nations.
The thought of producing a perfect generation was captivating to the political class. However, after some time, people realized that the practices were not ethical at all.36 In countries like Germany, the victims were used in various medical experiments. The governments supported procreation between people with desirable genes. The move was regarded by those opposed to the program as a form of discrimination. As a result, disadvantaged groups and societies felt unwanted.
A number of religious bodies, such as the Roman Catholic, strongly opposed eugenics in Scandinavia and other nations. It was a violation of human rights to force people into health institutions and treat them like prisoners just because they have a condition that is not contagious. With the realization of what Hitler was willing to do to achieve his superior race, international dialogues on human rights were fostered. Such moves led to a decline in the implementation of eugenic policies in Scandinavia.
Eugenics is the practice used to enhance positive breeding. Advocates of these programs argue that human traits are hereditary. They opine that it is possible to shape human evolution by practicing selective breeding. As such, the disabled individuals and other persons with undesirable traits were not allowed to procreate. Such people were sterilized to ensure that they did not engage in procreation. In Scandinavia, eugenics was a common practice. Factors that led to the rise of these programs include increased population growth and deterioration in health. The aim of these practices was to create a perfect generation characterized by ‘smart’ individuals with high IQs.
Many countries adopted the new technique. The practices were firmly established in the USA by the 20th century. They later spread to Germany and other countries. Hitler adopted an extreme form of eugenics after the Nazi party came into power. People who were termed as worthless were killed.37 However, after some time, people realized that it was inhuman to subject others to such conditions. The realization marked the fall of eugenics.
N. Agar, Liberal Eugenics: In Defence of Human Enhancement (New York, 2004).
M. Bjorkman & S. Widmalm, ‘Selling Eugenics: The Case of Sweden’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society 64:4 (2010), pp. 379-400.
E. Black, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race (New York, 2012).
G. Chesterton & M. Perry, Eugenics and Other Evils: An Argument against the Scientifically Organised State (London, 2000).
A. Drouard, ‘Concerning Eugenics in Scandinavia: An Evaluation of Recent Research and Publications’, Population: An English Selection 11 (1999), pp.261-270.
T. Duster, Backdoor to Eugenics (second edition, New York, 2003).
R. Engs, The Eugenics Movement: An Encyclopaedia (New York, 2005).
W. Kline, Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom (San Francisco, 2005).
P. Lombardo, Three Generations, no Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell (London, 2010).
P. Mazumdar, Eugenics, Human Genetics and Human Failings: The Eugenics Society, its Sources and its Critics in Britain (London, 2005).
D. Porter, ‘Eugenics and the Sterilisation Debate in Sweden and Britain before World War II’, Scandinavian Journal of History 24:2 (1999), pp145-162.
S. Reindal, ‘Disability, Gene Therapy and Eugenics: A Challenge to John Harris’, Journal of Medical Ethics 26 (2000), pp.89-94.
N. Roll-Hansen, ‘Geneticists and the Eugenics Movement in Scandinavia’, The British Journal for the History of Science 22 (1989), pp.335-346.
N. Roll-Hansen, ‘Eugenics in Scandinavia after 1945: Change of Values and Growth in Knowledge’, Scandinavian Journal of History 24:2 (1999), pp.199-213.
C. Rosen, Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement (Oxford, 2004).
E. Simonsen, ‘Disability History in Scandinavia: Part of an International Research Field’, Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research 7:3-4 (2005), pp.137-154.
A. Spektorowski & Mizrachi, E, ‘Eugenics and the Welfare State in Sweden: The Politics of Social Margins and the Idea of a Productive Society’, Journal of Contemporary History 39:3 (2004), pp.333-52.
D. Stone, Breeding Superman: Nietzsche, Race, and Eugenics in Edwardian and Interwar Britain (Liverpool, 2002).
- P. Mazumdar, Eugenics, Human Genetics, and Human Failings: The Eugenics Society, Its Sources, and Its Critics in Britain (London, 2005).
- N. Agar, Liberal Eugenics: In Defence of Human Enhancement (New York, 2004), p. 1.
- R. Eng, The Eugenics Movement: An Encyclopaedia (New York, 2005).
- N. Agar, Liberal Eugenics (New York, 2004), p. 3.
- W. Kline, Building a Better Race (San Francisco, 2005).
- S. Reindel, ‘Disability, Gene Therapy, and Eugenics: A Challenge to John Harris’, Journal of Medical Ethics 26 (2000), pp. 89-94.
- C. Rosen, Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement (Oxford, 2004).
- N. Roll-Hansen, ‘Geneticists and the Eugenics Movement in Scandinavia’, The British Journal for the History of Science 22 (1989), pp. 335-346.
- N. Roll-Hansen, ‘Eugenics in Scandinavia after 1945: Change of Values and Growth in Knowledge’, Scandinavian Journal of History 24:2, p.211.
- E. Simonsen, ‘Disability History in Scandinavia: Part of an International Research Field’, Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research 7:3-4 (2005), pp.137-154.
- P. Lombardo, Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell (London, 2010), p.8.
- D. Porter, ‘Eugenics and the Sterilisation Debate in Sweden and Britain Before World War II’, Scandinavian Journal of History 24:2 (1999), p. 147.
- Ibid, p. 140.
- A. Drouard, ‘Concerning Eugenics in Scandinavia: An Evaluation of Recent Research and Publications’, Population: An English Selection 11 (1999), p. 262.
- R. Engs, The Eugenic Movements (New York, 2005).
- P. Lombardo, Three Generations, no Imbeciles (London, 2010).
- D. Stone, Breeding Superman: Nietzsche, Race, and Eugenics in Edwardian and Interwar Britain (Liverpool, 2002).
- A. Drouard, ‘Concerning Eugenics in Scandinavia: An Evaluation of Recent Research and Publications’, Population: An English Selection 11 (1999), p. 262.
- A. Spektorowski & Mizrachi, E, ‘Eugenics and the Welfare State in Sweden: The Politics of Social Margins and the Idea of a Productive Society’, Journal of Contemporary History 39:3 (2004), p. 339.
- D. Stone, Breeding Superman (Liverpool, 2002).
- M. Bjorkman & S. Widmalm, ‘Selling Eugenics: The Case of Sweden’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society 64:4 (2010), pp. 379-400.
- N. Roll-Hansen, ‘Eugenics in Scandinavia after 1945: Change of Values and Growth in Knowledge’, Scandinavian Journal of History 24:2, p.200.
- T. Duster. Backdoor to Eugenics (second edition, New York, 2003).
- G. Chesterton & W. Perry, Eugenics, and Other Evils: An Argument Against the Scientifically Organised State (London, 2000).
- N. Agar, Liberal Eugenics (New York, 2004).
- E. Black, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race (New York, 2012).
- D. Stone, Breeding Superman (Liverpool, 2002).