Philosophy, Eugenics and Disability in Alberta and Places North – Simo Vehmas Part 2

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 second part of the presentation by Simo Vehmas (The first part may be found here).  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 2

Highlights: Lack of knowledge by sterilization victims about what was happening, total number of Finnish sterilization victims in, illusion of voluntary sterilization, logical flaw of “playing the Nazi card”, strategy for effective discussion in the face of embarrassment, and prevention of disability vs. providing autonomous choice.

A transcript follows the cut.Transcript:

So as a result, the first sterilization law in 1935 and the renewed law in 1950, enacted that a person could be sterilized even against his or her own will, usually her own will, if that person’s condition was such that it would either be passed to one’s offspring or that it would prevent one from rearing the child properly. What amounts either to a forced or a voluntary sterilization is sometimes a matter of interpretation, but if the person was not informed about the operation and decision was made by a proxy, like the manager of an institution in question, I think it’s quite safe, or it was considered that the person was incapable of understanding what the operation was all about, then I think its safe to classify these as forced sterilizations. I had a look at these, I was supped to conduct research on the archive material of these decisions, but then I went into philosophy. But, there were quite a few cases I remember, where women wrote to authorities, like five or ten years after the sterilization, saying that they didn’t know what was happening.

And yeah… So, abortion became also a eugenic tool in 1950s, because quite a few abortion permits were granted for eugenic reasons, and sterilization was a precondition for abortion. So if you wanted to have an abortion, you got it if you were sterilized as well. According to official Finnish statics, 7,530 sterilizations were performed on eugenic grounds between 1935 and 1970 and only 996 were performed between 1935 and 1950, so the heyday of eugenic sterilization in Finland was the late 1950s and early 1960s, where more than 500 people were sterilized annually on eugenic grounds. And, it’s hard to tell, I remember from the archives, there were these forms where people were asking “please sterilize me,” but its kind of hard to tell whether that was actually the case, but formally they were voluntary sterilization, but if you lived in an institution and you had an intellectual disability and you were told that it’s for your own good, well, I don’t know if that counts for a voluntary act.

Now this part of Finnish history is considered as troublesome and embarrassing and thus it’s mostly kept in silence. There was a, it was reported largely in the late 90s, so about ten years ago, and public reaction was really, people were surprised, most people didn’t know about it, and then also it was a kind of, like all embarrassing things, all emotionally difficult things in Finland they kept quiet, so we just don’t talk about it so then the problem doesn’t exist. And when eugenics is mentioned, the discussion is immediately directed towards Nazi atrocities of which we had nothing to do with supposedly and how different everything is now. And drawing a parallel between a eugenic past and present medical practices is easily labeled as a logical flaw named playing the Nazi card and indeed simplified analogies between past and present should be avoided as unhelpful. And in my view, reminding about the eugenic past is not always the best way to start a discussion, it’s not a very good way to convince doctors or physicians that the practices are somewhat questionable, because when you mention eugenics, you lose your audience immediately. People are just “no, that’s not what we’re doing” and then when they refuse to listen, what do you say after that? So I think that sometimes a better was is to make an argument first and then boost it with emotionally charged analogy or then reminding about the past and possibly making a fair parallel to what’s happening now.

Nowadays, the official policy is based on the principle of autonomy. For instance, in Denmark the National Health Service declared in 2003 that there has happened a paradigmatic… paradigm change in prenatal practice. Whereas previously, the main goal was prevention of disability but now the main-and this was based and it was even admitted that this goal was based pretty much on eugenic principles-but now the main goal is providing people with autonomous unlimited freedom for choice and so the success of prenatal genetic testing and various measures is measured by freedom of choice. So autonomy is the prominent value, everything is based on autonomy. In practice this means that the more tests there are available, the more choices you have and the more freedom you have. This is the kind of logic, which can be… and people actually, I think, believe this, although of course it’s not very credible, because more medicalized and technical pregnancy gets, women are more and more at the mercy of doctors who are the only ones who actually know what’s being tested and how to interpret and understand these test results.

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