Philosophy, Eugenics & Disability in Alberta and Places North – Simo Vehmas Part 1

On October 25, 2008, the What Sorts Network hosted a public symposium to examine, well, philosophy, eugenics, and disability in Alberta and places north.  Four speakers were featured on the panel, Dick Sobsey, Simo Vehmas, Martin Tweedale, and Rob Wilson.  This event was video recorded and over the next month we will highlight these videos on this blog.  Roughly four videos will be featured each week.

To download the full description of the symposium please click here.

With this video we begin the presentation by Simo Vehmas.  Simo’s presentation is titled “Preventing Disability: Nordic Perspectives” and it focuses on summarizing past and present attitudes towards eugenic practices in Nordic countries, principally Finland, with special attention paid to attitudes and ideas around eugenic practices of preventing disability.

Part 1

Highlights: Origins of eugenic ideas in Finland; use of eugenic practices to reinforce various social power structures; ineffectiveness of marriage regulations lead to sterilization practices; intersection of eugenics, morality and criminality.

A transcript follows the cut.


The genetic ideas of the inheritable nature of various undesirable physical and mental characteristics found their ways to Finland in the late 1800s. The actual breakthrough of eugenics has often been located to 1912, the year when the first international conference on eugenics took place in London. And that conference brought out the aims and practical implications of eugenics, which were reported largely even in Finnish newspapers. Especially enthusiastic advocates of eugenics in Finland were many influential medical doctors and professionals who were in charge of the institutional care of people with disabilities.

Also, the Swedish speaking upper-class was especially keen to raise and implement eugenic principles and, for instance, Finnish language was seen as one indication of a, how do you say, racially degenerate trait. And the Finnish Civil War in 1918 and the following financial crisis strengthened the general disgust against groups considered as morally dubious and financially consuming. Unsurprisingly, the defeated part of the Civil War, which consisted mainly of working class and Socialists was seen as especially dangerous regarding Finland’s prosperity. These people were often referred to as mentally feeble and pathologically fanatic in their hatred toward the bourgeois, especially individuals with a poor intellectual competence who seemed to be prone to live uncontrollably according to their instincts and mainly sexual instincts. They suffered moral insanity, inborn incapability to know right from wrong.

So, something needed to be done and that something occurred in several ways. At first, people with unfavorable hereditary characteristics were isolated in institutions, but that really didn’t work because institutions and a segregated environment provided these inhabitants with supposed endless sexual urges just a sheltered environment for breeding. Another way was to prevent certain people from getting married or grant them a marriage permit only if they were sterilized. According to the 1929 Marriage Act, kinship, insanity, and idiocy constituted unquestionable impediments to the marriage, whereas marriages of individuals with epilepsy, sexually transmitted diseases and marriage between two congenitally deaf persons was conditional on president’s special license. And corresponding regulations had been enacted for example in Norway and Denmark, but it was soon noticed that marriage acts were ineffective, because people tend to have sex even though they’re not married. So the next step was sterilization, which offered a cheaper and more effective, and so it was said, a more humane way than institutionalization to prevent people with unwanted characteristics from having children.

Sterilization was seen to be the only effective way to prevent the morally insane people from breeding, because this was thought to be due to their uncontrollable sexuality. The report of a sterilization law commission in 1929 illuminated this supposed broad fact with various cautionary example true to life cases. These are my translations. There were quite a few of these cases that were reported. First of all, SR feeble-minded 27-year-old butcher’s daughter; even-tempered, could be looked after at home [unleashed/without special monitoring] unless she was not extremely prone to practice sexual intercourse; therefore, she has lately been looked after in the county mental hospital; gave birth to an illegitimate child while being at home. Now the word “unleashed” or “without special monitoring” was difficult to translate because its usually, the word that is used there is only used in relation to animals, like if wild animals are being in the wild or where they are unleashed, so I think actually unleashed is a proper term. Another one: H.R. Feeble-minded 37-year-old workman’s widow; fit for work and even-tempered, could support herself, but is very lustful, constantly looking for male company when not institutionalized; has given birth to two illegitimate children. And this “constantly looking for male company” the tone of the text is like these people are like MADLY looking for sex all the time. And surprisingly the commission constituted of only 10 men.

So the idea of uncontrollable and wild sexuality did not refer primarily to the quantity of sex between eugenically dangerous people, it referred mostly to its quality. This meaning that the sexual activities of women with impairments were regarded dangerous because sex in their cases resulted with great probability in a birth of a child with similar characteristics, similar unwanted characteristics. Another factor explaining the undesirability of certain people’s sexuality had to do with the dominant moral and legal norms of the time. According to Christian morality extramarital sexual affairs were condemnable and also the criminal code at the time defines extramarital sexual affairs as crimes. So on eugenic, moral, and criminal grounds, certain people’s sexuality was considered as undesirable.

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