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Denmark apologizes for abuse of people with disabilities

September 11, 2023

The Danish government has apologized to thousands of people with disabilities who were abused in state-run facilities. The ill-treatment took place over decades and left deep emotional and physical scars.

The entrance to Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen
Danish authorities had already indicated that an apology was on its wayImage: Bernd Kröeger/picture alliance

Denmark's minister for social affairs, Pernille Rosenkrantz-Theil, on Monday apologized on behalf of the state for abuse experienced by children over decades.

Thousands of children and adults with disabilities were committed to state institutions and subjected to abuse that included forced sterilization and sexual assault.

When did the abuse take place?

Some 15,000 children and adults with a wide range of disabilities were sent to state facilities for various periods from 1933 to 1980. Among the reasons given for placing them under "Special Care," was that this would protect society — a concern at least partly thought rooted in theories of eugenics. The idea of eugenics, which is based on the aim of improving the genetic quality of the human population, was historically used to exclude or target certain groups judged to be inferior, most notoriously by the Nazis during the Holocaust. 

In Denmark, those with disabilities such as blindness, epilepsy and physical or mental handicaps were committed to state institutions.  

Forced sterilizations were also carried out on psychiatric patients from 1929 to 1967. Until as late as 1989, patients also had to obtain special permission from the authorities to marry.

A previous Danish government ordered inquiry, which in 2020 found a series of abuses at the centers. They included violence, psychological and sexual abuse, as well as grave mistakes when it came to medical treatments.

In 1980, the parliament decentralized the special care sector and handed over the responsibility to local authorities.

What the minister said

Rosenkrantz-Theil described the period of abuse as "one of the blackest chapters in Danish history."

"Society is supposed to look after the citizens, and here the opposite has happened," the minister said.

"Of course, we cannot change the past with an apology. But we can take responsibility for what happened, and we can recognize that wrong was done."

"In the name of the Danish state, in the name of the government: Sorry," she said.

"What happened to you is far below the Denmark we believe in. We will never forget what happened to you -- and what happened to you will never happen again."

The minister issued the apology at an event held for some 50 victims of the policy from the period in the western city of Horsens.

One of them, Hanne Klitgaard Larsen, also spoke at the event.

"There are more of us than you think, who are marked for life," Denmark's Politiken newspaper reported Klitgaard Larsen as saying. "The apology means a lot today because it reaches into the future. And there is a promise that you will not have that view of humanity in the future", she said.

Richard Connor Reporting on stories from around the world, with a particular focus on Europe — especially Germany.