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Victims of forced sterilisation win compensation

It is not known how many people were sterilised against their will Keystone Archive

Victims of forced sterilisation are to receive SFr5,000 ($3,800) each after parliament agreed in principle to pay compensation.

This content was published on March 10, 2004 - 15:18

Parliamentarians said the figure was a “symbolic gesture” and was aimed at recognising past abuses.

Campaigners have complained about the paltry size of the payments, which are well below original proposals of SFr80,000.

On Wednesday the House of Representatives narrowly agreed by 91 votes to 84 to pay compensation. There was strong opposition from the government, members of the rightwing Swiss People's Party and the centre-right Radicals.

The money is to be paid to surviving victims, who number an estimated 100 people.

Forced sterilisation was carried out in Switzerland until the 1980s and mainly involved mentally and physically handicapped women or women of low social standing.

Welcomed

Heidi Meyer, president of Insieme, an organisation representing Switzerland’s 50,000 mentally handicapped, welcomed the move but criticised the size of the payments.

“I am very pleased that this law was finally approved and that there has been recognition that these people suffered a wrong. But the amount of compensation is very small,” she told swissinfo.

Opponents of the move had argued that granting compensation could set a precedent for other victims' groups.

“In 50 years’ time, are our descendents going to ask for compensation for people currently interned for life in psychiatric establishments?” questioned the justice minister, Christoph Blocher, in his address to parliament.

“We need to do more investigations in order to determine which sterilisations were forced and which were justified at the time,” he added.

Blocher also said that cantons and communes - rather than the government - should be primarily liable for the payments.

His position was supported by members of his own People's Party and the Radicals.

Sterilisation allowed

The House also approved by 156 votes to two another proposal to allow sterilisation only under strict conditions and only where it was in the interests of the person affected.

Parliamentarians also agreed to raise the minimum age for authorised sterilisation from 16 to 18.

They said sterilisation would only be permitted in cases where the patient was able to make an informed decision and after they had agreed to it in writing.

“Many people suffered forced sterilisation in the past and it’s important to have a law to ensure that it doesn’t happen again,” added Meyer.

Both proposals, for compensation and outlining conditions for sterilisation, are now due to go to the Senate for approval.

Forced sterilisation became a political issue at the end of the 1990s, after Sweden revealed that more than 60,000 of its citizens - mainly women - had been sterilised between 1935 and 1976.

Subsequent research in Switzerland showed that compulsory sterilisations had been carried out in the country until the 1970s and that there had been abuses.

Thousands of victims

No precise data exists on the exact number of those affected but it is estimated to run into the tens of thousands.

The victims were mainly handicapped or mentally disabled women who were sterilised or forced to have abortions under the threat of being institutionalised.

A study of Zurich city and cantonal records - published in 2002 - also found that some of the victims were women from poor or deprived social backgrounds.

Researchers concluded that Swiss sterilisation policies were similar to those practised in the United States and Scandinavian countries and were motivated by fears that white Europeans were at risk of becoming weaker than other races.

In 1999 the former Green Party parliamentarian, Margrith von Felten, launched an initiative calling for compensation to be paid to those sterilised against their will.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold

In brief

In 1928 canton Vaud was the first place in Europe to pass a law allowing forced sterilisation.

It was repealed in 1928 but 187 such sterilisations had already taken place.

Forced sterilisation first appeared in Switzerland at the end of the 19th century. It was practised until the early 1970s.

Five years ago, then parliamentarian Margrith von Felten launched an initiative calling for compensation to be paid to those sterilised against their will.

It was accepted by parliament in 2000, but cabinet rejected the proposed compensation package last September.

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