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Switzerland plans protections against forced sterilisation

The Swiss parliament has taken a first step towards legislation to protect psychiatric patients from forcible sterilisation. The move follows demands that victims of what used to be accepted practice in this country should be awarded compensation.

This content was published on February 3, 2000 - 09:54

The Swiss parliament has taken a first step towards legislation to protect psychiatric patients from forcible sterilisation. The move follows demands that victims of what used to be accepted practice in this country should be awarded compensation.

The move to outlaw forced sterilisation, recommended by the House of Representatives' legal affairs commission, came in response to revelations that canton Vaud had legally supported a policy of forcible sterilisations on handicapped and mental patients.

Since the 1920s, 180 people are thought to have been forcibly sterilised in that canton. Moreover, although the practice was relatively common throughout Switzerland at the time, Vaud was the only canton to have laws that supported the practice until 1985.

Now a cross-party legal commission has unanimously backed a proposal calling for forced sterilisations to be officially outlawed, and for victims to be compensated. The proposal was drafted last year by parliamentarian Margrith von Felten, before she left parliament.

Officially, forcible sterilisations are no longer carried out in Switzerland, but there are no laws preventing them from taking place. Last June, the House of Representatives rejected von Felten's demand for a government-financed study on the issue.

However, the House's commission found that there was a need to establish legal limits as well as safeguards to protect vulnerable members of society, such as minors, people in the care of guardians, and those incapable of proper judgement.

Hans-Ulrich Jöst, a historian who first exposed the sterilisations in Vaud, told Swissinfo that psychiatric practice in general has traditionally been relatively free of formal regulation.

He said forcible sterilisation on a small scale was carried out in Switzerland for many years before and shortly after the Second World War, but that attitudes varied between cantons and doctors enjoyed a large degree of trust.

"At first sight it was surprising. Then, comparing it internationally with Britain, the United States or Sweden, I realised that within the field of eugenics it appeared to be quite a modern argument. Once the Holocaust happened, such issues were viewed very differently," Jöst said.

He believes that concern about forcible sterilisations has declined since his study prompted an official inquiry. "It's a bit of an awkward subject in Switzerland," he added.

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