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Foreign News: SIN & SWEDEN

7 minute read

Reported TIME Correspondent Joe David Brown from Sweden:

THREE years ago the Lutheran bishops of Sweden caused an uproar by coming out against sin. The occasion was a pastoral letter on sexual morality. Tactfully vague, and generous toward “weaknesses of the flesh,” the letter said in effect that the Lutheran Church was opposed to birth control, abortion and promiscuity, especially among the young. In no other country would the letter have caused more than a ripple. But in modern Sweden, where sociology has become a religion in itself, and birth control, abortion and promiscuity —especially among the young—are recognized as inalienable rights, there was a tidal wave of indignation. Newspapers thundered that the bishops had no business meddling in such matters; citizens told them to mind their own business, and even a few parsons accused their superiors of aspiring to emulate the Church of Rome. Aghast at the controversy they had started, the bishops retired to the shelter of their churches and have not ventured into the market place since. “One must remember,” one of Sweden’s leading Lutheran bishops explained to me, “that in Sweden the church, from the point of view of the visitor from a country where there is no ‘official’ church, has a very peculiar position. The Swedish State Church is part of the government. It is expected to support the government laws, even though”—and he shrugged resignedly —”it does not always agree with them.” Secure & Static. In Sweden the church has knuckled under to the state since the 16th century, when King Gustav Vasa led Sweden’s break from Rome during the Reformation. Today the church’s activities and its concepts are so closely tied to the state that it enjoys the status and security of a government department—a department no more or less important than any other. In its efforts to please the government, it has become so watered down as an institution that to the average Swede it has lost most of its spiritual meaning. The Swedes regard the church as a proper place to marry in or be buried from; only a handful go to Sunday worship. The bishop with whom I spoke—one of those who signed the notorious letter—personally opposes abortions and birth control “except in cases of dire medical necessity.” But he admitted to me that he had never spoken out against either of these things in church, because he “did not think it would be proper, as long as they are legal.” Whatever the cause, sexual moral standards in Sweden today are jolting to an outsider. Statistics show that there are at least 27,000 unmarried mothers. The birth rate of only 110,000 babies a year in a country of 7,000,000 is in itself a hazard to Sweden’s future. Fully 10% of the babies are illegitimate. One of every two unmarried women who conceive a child has a legal abortion. All a woman need do to have one is to convince a social worker that the birth is “unsuitable.” About 5,000 women, married and unmarried, are admitted to hospitals each year for legal abortions. A professor at Stockholm’s largest women’s clinic was reported for “cruelty” because he told a patient that the abortion she was about to have was the same as murdering one of her previous children. An Uppsala doctor was called a “fascist” in letters to the press because he made the statement that Sweden loses the equivalent of one regiment a year through abortions. Unwed Heroines. Admittedly, it is a Christian virtue to show kindness and tolerance to unwed mothers, but in Sweden they are practically heroines. Not long ago an unwed mother became a candidate for the Lucia Crown, an annual beauty award based on the legend of St. Lucia, who had her eyes gouged out for defending her chastity against a Roman centurion. When the judges questioned her qualifications and refused to let her compete, the young mother received bales of encouraging letters and the judges were roundly blasted. The sex education given in public schools would make even the most modern, broad-minded American parent blanch. At a party in Stockholm, I met Mrs. Elise Ottesen-Jensen, the 17th of 18 children of a Norwegian family, a vigorous, outspoken woman who looks years younger than she is (69). She travels all over Sweden by car, train and even on skis to run clinics, advises branch offices and lectures on birth control and sex relations. One of her proudest achievements has been the government decision to teach sex in schools, and she assiduously superintends it. I asked Mrs. Ottesen-Jensen what she teaches the young people. “I tell them that the important thing is that they must be in love,” she said. “I tell the girls it is all right to sleep with a boy—but first they must be in love. When I tell them that, you see them smiling and nudging each other.” “You don’t advise them to wait until they get married?” I asked. Mrs. Ottesen-Jensen fixed me with a scornful eye. “Everybody knows that couples—young people when they are, how do you say it, ‘going steady’—sleep together,” Mrs. Ottesen-Jensen said. “Their mothers and fathers know it. What use is there of trying to change nature? So I tell them, wait until you are sure, wait until you are in love.” “Let’s get this straight,” I said. “You tell them this in schools?” Mrs. Ottesen-Jensen laughed at my amazement. So did the other guests. One wondered if I was religious. “How,” I said to Mrs. Ottesen-Jensen, “can a boy or girl of 17 or 18 know the difference between love and plain old biological urge?” “Oh, they can tell love,” she said. “They can tell real love.” Everyone nodded in agreement. A small, dark man who, I later learned, was a psychiatrist, tried to explain. “The only difference between our behavior here and behavior in other countries is that we face the facts,” he said. “Young people sleep together everywhere. We don’t frown and tell them that it is sinful and expect that that will prevent it. Since they’re going to do it anyway, we try to give them training and teach them to be honest. If a girl finds she’s going to have a baby, we don’t ostracize her, we take care of her. Isn’t it better to let her have an abortion in a hospital than go to a dirty vet, as she does in other countries?”

The Problem Is Medical. Although assured that I had been hearing a typical Swedish point of view, I was not convinced until I had talked next day with a Roman Catholic priest in Stockholm. (There are about 20,000 Roman Catholics in Sweden.) I expressed my shock that parents and teachers condone promiscuity, do not even try to tell the young people that such things are wrong. “You must understand Swedish mentality,” said the Catholic. “They are incapable of imagining a world where there are not unwed mothers, where abortions and birth control are not necessary. They say, ‘Since these things exist, then let us do something constructive about them.’ They don’t believe it is possible to change human nature. They attack the problem as a sociological and medical one.” “But what will this lead to?” I asked. “After all, sexual morality is basic to Western ethics.” The man shook his head sadly. “I don’t know what the result will be.” In the pages of a Stockholm paper, in a typical one of a series of interviews being printed under the title, Swedish Youth Speaks, I found a partial answer to my own question. “I have no real morals,” said a boy of 19. “And I would never marry a girl because I had made her pregnant. Why should I give up my liberty for the sake of a child?”

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