Philosophy, Eugenics and Disability in Alberta and Places North – Simo Vehmas Q&A

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


Highlights: Is selective abortion another form of sterilization? What was the reason for forming the 1929 commission in Finland and why did it take so long for the results to be passed into law?  How was moral insanity defined? How were illegitimate children viewed in Nordic countries in the early 20th Century?  What was the involvement of religion?

A transcript follows the cut.


Simo: Questions?

Lelani Muir: Wouldn’t that be just another way of sterilizing the person? Cause they could have… Like, how many times would that happen? They could have more than one abortion. Like, come on.

Simo: Sorry, I’m not…

Lelani: Like saying the woman was to have the abortion, the doctors are saying “have the abortion.” Okay, she could go out and get pregnant again, the same thing, that’s just a different way of saying “hey sterilize the child or sterilize you, just keep having your abortions.”

Simo: Well, why it is seen differently…

Lelani: You’re killing a baby, it’s a child as soon as it’s conceived, right?

Simo: Well, yeah. In this way of thinking and this legislation, fetuses don’t have a legal or moral status, but who do have a legal status are women and what is seen as crucial is that they have the freedom to do whatever they want to do. And, Finnish philosophers have written about this, like Mate Hyry, they are extremely liberal, so like Hyry says, people should have the freedom to terminate their pregnancy on whatever grounds, so if you want to terminate the pregnancy because of the child’s disability, or the child’s gender, or hair color, feel free, we don’t care. Well, that solves the issue of policy.

Lelani: They should be educated on that so they don’t have to go through that.

Simo: Well, I don’t know whether it’s… I don’t think the abortion is the issue here, the issue is preventing disability I think that’s the more pressing issue.

Rob Wilson: Simo, can I ask you a question about the 1929 commission? What was the immediate impetus for that? Why did it come about then? And why did it take six years for the first piece of legislation to take place? Was it informed by intellectuals, people in the university, was it informed by scientists, who was kind of agitating around that and why right then, do you know?

Simo: Well mainly most of them were doctors and scientists, and then there were some petitions as well. But the law part is easy, I mean, people didn’t stand against it, so in the parliament it was just accepted immediately. So I think it was just bureaucracy why it took so long, actually. Yeah, it was easily accepted, that’s a good question, I don’t know why it took so long, actually…

Rob: Was it informed partly by Buck vs. Bell, the famous legal case and other North American developments or…?

Simo: Yes. They were referred to and the United States was like a model in Europe. Yeah and these studies of these families in the US they were looked at as well. And this idea of “a few generations of idiots is enough”. So it was similar, yeah.

Audience member 1: I was wondering how moral insanity was defined precisely, because you referred to sexual appetites… was that the sole criterion or were there other things…

Simo: Well, moral insanity, just very briefly was understood as an inborn incapability to know right from wrong. But the main thing was sexuality. I mean that was… for some reason, throughout humankind, especially Christian history, sexuality has been the most touchy moral issue. It’s ok to kill people, but it’s not ok to have sex with people.

Audience member 1: So that was the key expression of moral insanity, was this having sexual appetites that were strange or excessive or…

Simo: Yeah, or immoral.

Audience member 2: From what I understand, early 20th century eugenicists in the US thought that illegitimacy was because… illegitimacy was a sign of sexual appetite and sort of moral insanity in some ways, such that it marked the children born as illegitimate as also most likely degenerate. And early eugenicists that I’ve looked at then were very much against adoption as a formal institution because they thought “why encourage these children to continue” and it was an argument against adoption that the children in some sense weren’t reformable, malleable. And I wondered if there was a (?) of illegitimate children, where clearly they must have been connected in this sort of imaginary of genetic transference of sexual appetite and degeneracy and how then illegitimate children were considered, and if there was a position on adoption.

Simo: Well, yeah, I don’t know, but it makes sense. It doesn’t make sense, but it makes sense. Illegitimate children were, I think it’s only been for the past 20 years that they have not been called as bastards anymore, even in Finland. I remember in my childhood, that someone was known to be, well it was quite rare, but I knew a guy who was a bastard. It made him a bit, you know…

Audience member 2: Bitter.

Simo: No, no, no, the way we looked at him… a bit you know, dodgy, I don’t know.

Lelani: A dirty you-know-what. Raunchy person.

Simo: And it made explicit that something indecent had taken place.

Audience member 2: Right, but that’s different from transferring the quality, so Papano thought that these kids MUST be morally degenerate, because the sex actually was both a sign and a mechanism for marking the mind, so one thing that interests me is how that rhetoric had to be loosened for the institution of adoption to be kind of acceptable to the upper class. So children could be born and that, as bad seeds in some sense, but maybe rehabilitated, reinvented through socialization.

Lelani: In Finland, did the religious sector get involved in this like they did here in Canada?

Simo: Yeah, the clergy supported… the ideas of eugenics were pretty much based on Christian morals, so yeah at first they supported it. It helped to create good Christians.

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