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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Involuntary Sterilization in Denmark and Canada

In The Purity of Vengeance by Jussi Adler-Olsen explores the horrors of involuntary sterilization in Denmark. The main female character, Nete Hermansen, and another character, Rita, are sterilized in the mid-1950’s while being confined on the tiny island of Sprogo as moral degenerates. 

Nete had had a pair of teenage pregnancies which were aborted and no education when she was sent to Sprogo. The sterilization was devastating. She tried to move forward but the sterilization ultimately led to the destructive end of her marriage. 

There is a tendency to think of Nazi Germany when reflecting on involuntary sterilization. Certainly the numbers are staggering with approximately 400,000 sterilizations by the Nazis.

Yet Nazi Germany was far from the only country to have involuntary sterilizations. Between 1929 and 1967 Denmark sterilized 11,000 citizens. Denmark was not alone in northern Europe in having forced sterilization. Norway, Sweden and Finland also had involuntary sterilization.

In the 21st Century it is hard to imagine the use of involuntary sterilization. In the 20th Century the practice was a part of the eugenics movement.

In Oxford Languages eugenics is defined as:

The study of how to arrange reproduction within a human population to increase the occurrence of heritable characteristics regarded as desirable. Developed largely by Francis Galton as a method of improving the human race, it fell into disfavor only after the perversion of its doctrines by the Nazis.

My only disagreement with the definition is that forced sterilizations carried on long after the end of Nazi Germany in 1945.

Canada has its own dark history with compulsory sterilization led by the province of Alberta. Under The Sexual Sterilization Act, in force from 1928 - 1972, there were 2,800 involuntary sterilizations in Alberta.

British Columbia had similar, though more restrictive legislation from 1933 - 1973 under which several hundred people were sterilized.

In my province of Saskatchewan there was no legislation but approximately 60 indigenous women have claimed in a lawsuit that they were coerced into sterilization after giving birth to children. I have not heard of a resolution of the case.

In The Purity of Vengeance there is a history of right wing extremists leading the eugenics movement and forced sterilizations. Eugenics may have been led by the right in northern Europe but it was a philosophy also espoused by many progressives in Canada.

“The Famous Five” were a group of Alberta women who, in 1927, filed a court action seeking a declaration that women were “persons” who could be appointed to the Senate of Canada. At issue was whether under The British North America Act, which created Canada, women were not “persons”. To my everlasting dismay the Supreme Court of Canada found women were not “persons”. It took the English Privy Council in a decision by Justice Sankey to declare women were “persons”:

[The] exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours […] their Lordships do not think it right to apply rigidly to Canada of to-day the decisions and the reasonings therefor which commended themselves […] to those who had to apply the law in different circumstances, in different centuries, to countries in different stages of development.

While “The Famous Five” are justly recognized for their court action several of them actively supported and campaigned for the adoption of eugenics.

In 2004 our public broadcaster, the CBC, broadcast a television series to determine “The Greatest Canadian”. Tommy Douglas was the winner. He was Saskatchewan’s Premier from 1944 - 1961 leading the CCF (Co-operative Commonwealth Federation) and then was leader of the federal NDP (New Democratic Party) from 1961-1971. The primary reason for his choice as “The Greatest Canadian” was that he established universal government medicare in Saskatchewan. Medicare was soon adopted in the rest of Canada. Douglas was a progressive man well to the left of the centre.

Yet his Master’s Thesis in 1933 was titled The Problems of the Subnormal Family and advocated the adoption of eugenics. The Wikipedia entry on Douglas drawing on a well known biography of Douglas I read years ago states:

The thesis proposed a system that would have required couples seeking to marry to be certified as mentally and morally fit. Those deemed to be "subnormal", because of low intelligence, moral laxity, or venereal disease would be sent to state farms or camps; while those judged to be mentally defective or incurably diseased would be sterilized.

To his credit in 1944 when two reviews on Saskatchewan’s mental health legislation recommended adoption of sterilization he refused to pass such legislation.

Adler-Olsen vividly set out the cruel consequences of involuntary sterilization. The widespread adoption of the principles of eugenics by the left and the right reminds me that respect for human rights should be the concern of all of us of every political persuasion.
Adler-Olsen, Jussi - (2011) - The Keeper of Lost Causes(2012) - The Absent One; (2020) - A Conspiracy of Faith; (2020) The Purity of Vengeance


  1. Thank you, Bill, for sharing your insights on this issue. Forced sterilization does have a long, dark history, and it did carry on into a frighteningly recent time. I'm no legal expert - at all - but I know that forced sterilization has happened here in the US, too. The big issue here has been the sterilization of those with special needs. It's an unsettling fact of a lot of countries' histories, and I'm glad Adler-Olsen explores it and faces the issue in this novel.

    1. Margot: Thanks for the comment. I fear the opinions of experts on forced sterilizations. All the laws were put forward by the experts of the time.

  2. When I worked for the newspaper in Red Deer, Alberta, I interviewed a woman named Doreen Befus who had been sterilized. She and her twin sister were placed in Michener Centre as orphaned babies, which was a mental institution, and she grew up there. She later wrote a book about her experiences.

    1. Elinor: Thanks for the comment. That is an heart breaking real life example of the consequences of the Alberta program.

  3. I totally agree with you again, and add sterilization abuse in the U.S., which was widespread from the 1920s until the early 1970s, but the victims differed.
    Since you follow legal cases, there was a famous case called Buck v. Bell, where a poor young white woman, Carrie Buck, was involuntarily sterilized by the state of Virginia. The excuse was that she was developmentally disabled, but she was not. She was poor and not educated.
    She took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost in an 8-1 decision in 1927. It's a landmark case which was used in other states to sterilize many poor women, including women of color, immigrants and those with intellectual disabilities.
    However, later, this horrific practice was used in the South against Black women, as well-known in North Carolina. Victims of thise practice sued North Carolina and won, even some financial damages. I don't know if they were all paid out though.
    The terrible act happened there until the 1970s.
    Adam Cohen wrote a book on the Buck v. Bell case, which I read, but won't repeat the name as it's a slur against intellectually disabled people. But it is a good history of this.
    The U.S. was doing this before the Naazis did it.
    And, as Cohen explains, now women in prison are the victims of this odious practice, especially those of color.
    Im glad it's a theme in this book. Much more should be said about this crime in fiction and fact. Thanks for writing about this.

  4. Here is an excellent New York Times review of Adam Cohen's book which explains the eugenics movement in the 1920s, supported by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and that the Nazi leader praised the U.S. 1924 Immigration Law.

    HOpe you have a chance to read it.
    Shocked that women were not "persons" as stated the Supreme Court in Canada. But in the U.S., women were not included in the Constitution and had no right to vote until 1920, but Black, Indigenous, Chinese, Japanese women and others had to wait longer than that to exercise the basic right to vote.

  5. Kathy D.: I appreciate your passion. I chose not to delve into American involuntary sterilization. It was horrific.

    Buck v. Bell was an ugly decision. Its cruelty was reinforced by the statements of Holmes that sacrifices must be made for the good of the country. In the biography I have about Holmes the author indicated the cruel remarks such as "Three generations of imbeciles are enough" reflected "when he (Holmes) wrote against ordinary instincts". I consider it a meagre justification. Holmes clearly supported the law.

    His judgment reflects that all people are flawed.

    While Buck v. Bell has never officially overturned that is partly because the laws it upheld no longer exist.

    In Canada, especially Alberta, sterilization was not limited to women. Certainly a significant majority were women but men were also sterilized.

    As much harm can be done in the name of science as by ignorance.

  6. Yes. I forgot to say that in North Carolina, men, especially Black men were sterilized.
    And I just read about sterilizations going on now in some states with incarcerated people where a judge offers to cut a sentence if the person agrees to be sterilized or for women use a several-year contraceptive. The ACLU opposes these practices, of course, and calls them a violation of reproductive autonomy.

    So it's still going on. I read about it in three states, but I'm sure it's more rampant than that in the prisons, courts, etc.

    I wonder what did happen in the Saskatchewan case, which I read about and affected Indigenous and/or poor women. Have you read anything about it? I saw photos of some protests about it.

    Poor people have a right to have children and so do people of color, which is obvious to most of us.

  7. Kathy D.: I do not know what was happened to the Saskatchewan case. Mass court proceedings such as class actions require a lot of time and money. I had not and have not been approached by any indigenous women stating they were pressured into giving consent.

  8. Hmm. Now I'm sure you read about allegations of sterilization of women migrants in a detention facility in Georgia without their knowledge. This is a huge scandal here, on the news, protests.

  9. Also, in a discussion I was in this morning, discussing sterilization in the U.S., going back to the 1920s, I was reminded that Black women were sterilized under enslavemen and so were Indigenous women. It made me think of that horrific doctor who experimented on enslaved Black women not only in the South, but in New York, sterilized some and without anesthesia. This is a scandal. His statue which was on Central Park's periphery was moved far out in brooklyn due to public objections.

    1. Kathy D.: I cannot keep up with all the scandals in America and am trying to spend less time on American news. I do not understand the America of 2020.

      Sterilization is cruel. I fear nations around the world may resort again to sterilization to keep down the numbers of people "unwanted".

  10. Such a terrible topic, and so obvious to us how wrong it was.

    I had never heard of the Famous Five, and then just came across them today for the first time in a book on the history of feminism, so it was satisfying to find your mention of them too!

  11. Moira: Thanks for the comment. What is "obvious" too often is realized 1-2 generations after the wrongs have occurred.

    I think the Famous Five were remarkable women. I chose to value their accomplishments and realize they had flaws. I am disappointed in some of their attitudes and positions but believe they accomplished far more good than bad during their lives.