Eugenics Yields Dark Past

Some Oregonians have sad memories of forced sterilization.

Statesman Journal
December 1, 2002

Vincent Strafus takes special pride in the thin, straggly hairs that fringe his top lip and chin. They don’t qualify as a beard or moustache, but he strokes them as if they did. Last week, Strafus reluctantly agreed to have the hairs clipped. It was the second shave of his lifetime. He is 78 years old. The lack of facial and body hair is just one of several symptoms stemming from Strafus’ forced castration 62 years ago at the hands of the state. High blood pressure is another. The monthly testosterone shots he’s been getting for the past 18 months have helped, and not just in the whiskers department. But they do nothing to soothe the deeper scars caused by the operation, which took place at the Fairview Training Center in southeast Salem when Strafus was 16. A big man with playful blue eyes and a ready smile, Strafus responds to every question about the surgery in the same way: “Don’t want to talk about it.”

He is one of at least 2,648 people who were forcibly sterilized in Oregon between 1917 and 1981, most while in state care. Guided by the then-popular movement of eugenics, the idea was to prevent people with disabilities or criminal tendencies from passing on those and other traits deemed undesirable to their children.

Past practices

In a ceremony Monday at the state Capitol, Gov. John Kitzhaber will officially acknowledge the state’s past eugenics practices and perhaps apologize to those who underwent the operations. “I think it’s safe to assume that the governor is going to acknowledge that what happened here was inappropriate,” Kitzhaber spokesman Tom Towslee said, adding that the governor was one of the first to support the repeal of the eugenics law. Towslee said Kitzhaber also planned to designate Dec. 10 as Human Rights Day in Oregon “as a way of recognizing the strides that have been made in the treatment of people with disabilities.”

Oregon was one of 33 states that passed eugenics laws in the first quarter of the 20th century. Kitzhaber would become only the second governor to issue such an apology, after Virginia’s. Attending the ceremony will be members of 17 social and professional groups that have sought an apology since July. Among them will be members of the gay and lesbian communities and people with mental disabilities.

Coalition leader Steve Weiss said an apology will help heal the pain felt by surviving victims while discrediting “a pseudoscience that caused worldwide misery.” Critics point out that Nazi Germany built on U.S. eugenics laws to legally justify programs that sterilized and killed millions of people. “One of the things about unearthing some of the less admirable parts of American history is to make sure that they don’t happen again,” said Weiss, also board president of the Oregon Advocacy Center and the Mental Health Association of Oregon.

Sterilizations were legally authorized at Fairview, then named the State Institution for the Feeble-Minded, after the Oregon Legislature formed the State Board of Eugenics in 1923. The law permitted the sterilization of “persons, male or female, who are feeble-minded, insane, epileptic, habitual criminals, moral degenerates and sexual perverts, who are, or … who are likely to become, a menace to society.” 

Oregon was not the worst offender — more than seven times as many people were sterilized in California — but the methods used in Oregon were more draconian than in many other states. Castration was preferred over vasectomies, for example, and the law initially was used to punish homosexuals. Until reforms in 1967, sterilization was often used as a condition of release from state institutions. The Legislature did not abolish the Board of Eugenics until 1983, when Kitzhaber was a state senator from Roseburg.

Directly affected

Strafus, who was transferred to Fairview at age 8 from St. Mary’s Home for Boys in Portland, said he doesn’t know why he was singled out for sterilization and doesn’t remember signing any consent forms.
He said he was not a trouble-maker and did various jobs at Fairview, including working with animals and in the machine shop. “He’s worked really hard trying to put this behind him,” said Jon Johnson, assistant director of Community Support Services, a private agency which provides residential services to people with disabilities.

Strafus, who lives semi-independently in a Keizer apartment, said he’s never wanted to marry or have children. “I stay single,” he quipped. “That’s why I can hang onto my money.”

Johnson said many patients essentially were punished with sterilization for exploring their sexuality in a system that offered no training about what was sexually appropriate behavior. For decades, patients at institutions like Fairview were considered asexual, he said. Another victim, Frank Trowbridge, 56, said he was forced to have a vasectomy as a condition of release from Fairview when he was about 22. 
“They threatened me. I couldn’t get out,” he said. He had already been discharged once, but his parents had him committed again after he was arrested for “talking dirty” to some girls, he said. 
Trowbridge said he signed consent forms but didn’t fully understand what they meant. The operation was painful. “They put me half asleep and half awake,” he said. “By the time I got out of there, I was wide awake it hurt so much. … Sometimes, I still have nightmares about it.”

These days, Trowbridge holds down a mail-sorting job and lives alone semi-independently in a Salem house. He said he feels sad more than angry that he can’t have children.

Both Trowbridge and Strafus said they plan to attend Monday’s ceremony, but neither gives much weight to an apology from the governor.  “I think it’d be satisfactory,” Trowbridge said. “I think it’d be all right,” Strafus said.

Apology debate

The debate over an apology has uncovered decades of lost records and unknown cases, including at least 100 teenage girls forcibly sterilized — some simply for misbehaving — while they lived at the state training school for delinquent girls before 1941. Evidence of other cases has been obscured by the confidentiality of medical records and by the fact that the records of the Board of Eugenics and its successor, the Board of Social Protection, were lost or destroyed. At least one woman died as a result of a forced hysterectomy. The last-known state-ordered sterilization was in 1978. The board considered no new cases after July 1981. Fairview closed in February 2000. Weiss said his goal eventually is to get apologies from all 33 states that passed eugenics laws, starting with California, where more than 20,000 people were sterilized." Having this (apology) happen now is, you might say, an inoculation to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” he said.

Laurence M. Cruz can be reached at (503) 399-6716.