Exposing the fetus: The thalidomide scandal and its effects

Project leader: Maria Björkman

This subproject examines the importance and implications of the so-called thalidomide scandal in the early 1960s when children to mothers who had taken the sleeping pill with the name thalidomide (in Swedish: “neurosedyn”) were born with malformed limbs. It focuses on the media reporting on this incident as well as the debates that motivated the establishment of a national register for malformations at the Tornblad Institute of Lund University, and how these events produced different meanings and views of fetal research and fetal objects. For researchers and others the scandal demonstrated the need for further investigations on human fetal material to determine if drugs were safe before they were distributed to pregnant women. Yet, for the parents of the “thalidomide children” who started to organise themselves into a disability movement, this strand of research posed a threat to the values and rights of disabled people.

Publications and presentations:

• ”Defining, valuing, and negotiating fetuses and infants: Examples from the Swedish thalidomide case”, paper presentation, History of Science, Technology and Medicine Network Annual Conference, Queen’s University, Belfast, October 26–27, 2018.

• ”The Janus face of social engineering: Examples from the Swedish thalidomide case”, paper presentation, Valuations of Life: Birth defects, prenatal diagnosis, and disability, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden, September 25–26, 2018.