Denied a choice: When Ruth Morris wanted to leave Fairview, the state's ransom was her fertility

The Register-Guard
December 1, 2002

LIKE MANY WOMEN of her generation, 60-year-old Ruth Morris met the love of her life in her 20s and within a few years had set up housekeeping in a cozy bungalow where she cooked, cleaned and cared for herself and her mate, Robert Jones, as well as his identical twin brother, Richard.

Also like some couples in every generation, Morris and Jones shared the disappointment of not being able to have children.

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On a visit back to the Fairview Training Center in Salem, Ruth Morris stands by the office of Magruder Cottage, where she lived.

Photos: PAUL CARTER / The Register-Guard


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But their infertility - and that of his twin and roughly 2,500 other Oregonians between 1910 and 1983 - had a different origin from most: They all had been sterilized by the state.

"They just said I had to get it done," Morris said. "I regretted it, but I didn't feel I had any choice. Now I think it wasn't fair."

So do many others. In fact, in one of his last official gestures after two four-year terms as Oregon's governor, John Kitzhaber will extend an official apology Monday to those who, like Morris, lost their opportunity for parenthood in the zeal for "eugenics" that began sweeping the nation early in the 20th century.

Only one other state, Virginia, has expressed regret to its citizens for a similar program of involuntary sterilization. Altogether, 33 states conducted nearly 66,000 of the procedures. Oregon ranks ninth in the total number of sterilizations performed.

Eugenics laws are approved

Morris and the Jones twins became caught up in the later years of the eugenics movement after they had been diagnosed as mentally retarded and put in the Fairview Training Center in Salem.

Fairview - originally called the State Institution for Feeble-Minded - opened in 1908 specifically to provide care, vocational training and supervision for people unable to live independently or with their families. In 1913, the center came under the jurisdiction of the newly established state Board of Control.


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A snapshot from Ruth Morris' scrapbook shows her as a young woman (right) and later with her partner, Robert Jones. Both Morris and Jones were residents of the Fairview Training Center in Salem, where they were both sterilized under the state's eugenics policy.


Ruth Morris walks the halls of the residential cottage where she lived at Fairview Training Center in Salem. The facility closed in 2000.


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Intended initially to ensure the efficient and economical operation of state institutions that served a variety of special populations - mentally ill, developmentally disabled, blind, deaf, "wayward" and criminal - the board quickly became the arbiter of social engineering as the eugenics movement took hold.

"Around that time, people became very concerned about the hereditary transmission of intellect and other traits," said Phil Ferguson, until recently a member of the University of Oregon faculty specializing in training programs for the developmentally disabled.

"The prevailing idea was that all social ills - tuberculosis, criminal behavior, insanity, mental disability - were traceable back to defective genes."

Beginning in 1907, a series of bills authorizing involuntary sterilization, championed by a doctor named Bethenia Owens-Adair, came before the Legislature.

The first bill to pass, in 1909, drew a gubernatorial veto, and voters overturned the second bill in a 1913 referendum. The courts rejected the 1917 version - which replaced the Board of Control with a new Board of Eugenics - for not offering those subjected to the procedure sufficient right to appeal.

The Legislature remedied that flaw in 1923 and continued the sterilization program for the next six decades.

The ravages of World War I also played a part in the growth of the state's sterilization program. Concerned that state institutions would not have room to treat physically and mentally wounded war veterans, the Board of Control in 1919 declared that "while there is a pressing demand to make adequate provisions for relief of all that are afflicted, there is also an urgent need to employ every reasonable means to prevent the useless multiplication of cases."

After that, sterilizations in state institutions - primarily Fairview, the state penitentiary and mental hospitals - increased, peaking in the late 1930s, then tapering off until the Legislature finally repealed the law in 1983.

Then a member of the state Senate, Kitzhaber served on the legislative committee that pressed for ending the practice and abolishing the Board of Control, which by then had been renamed the Board Social Protection.

Fairview becomes home

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The Jones boys entered Fairview in 1945 at age 9 because their parents had separated and their father couldn't care for them adequately. They remained at Fairview until the early 1970s, although when their father remarried, their stepmother went to great lengths to re-establish their relationship with their family. The twins were sterilized in 1969.

Morris grew up in La Grande with parents Virgil and Dorothy Morris and an older sister, Deanna. Early photos of family and friends fill a well-worn album she keeps in her central Eugene home: babies in paper hats helping celebrate her first birthday, pictures of the two sisters with their parents and grandparents, and school pictures of classmates from elementary and junior high school.

Her mother believed that Morris' mental development might have been affected at age 4, after the little girl ran a high fever for four days. She repeated first grade, received "social promotions" through sixth grade, had a difficult time in junior high and left school in the eighth grade, although she later continued with special education classes.

In 1962, when she turned 20, her parents began considering Fairview as a possible placement for her so she could have better access to job training services and more social interaction.

Meanwhile, she lived at home, keeping house for her parents while they both worked, her father as a mechanic and her mother as a teacher.

After her mother died suddenly in 1964, Morris' father recontacted Fairview and moved Morris there in August 1965. Her sterilization - Fallopian tube resection along with an "incidental appendectomy" - was done in 1967.

After successfully holding down a series of caregiving jobs in Bend, Portland and Oakridge, Morris won complete discharge from Fairview custody in 1972. Robert and Richard Jones' discharge came a year later, and all three took up residence in the house where Richard and Ruth still live.

Robert's health had been fragile since he suffered a stroke two years ago. He died in July, just a few days after the trio returned from a once-in-a-lifetime cruise to Alaska.

Stepping back into the past

The state phased out the Fairview Training Center's programs over the past decade as the emphasis shifted to supporting people with developmental disabilities in their own communities instead of putting them in institutions. Fairview closed for good in 2000, after 92 years of operation.

Last Wednesday Morris paid one more visit to Fairview, walking through the empty complex with Jon Cooper, the institution's last superintendent and the one in charge of shutting it down.

The two know each other well. Since she left Fairview, Morris has worked hard to champion the rights of Oregonians who live with developmental disabilities. She currently serves on the governor-appointed Oregon Council on Developmental Disabilities and also participates actively in People First, an international nonprofit organization that provides activities and support for disabled people.

She will be one of the "voices from Fairview" included in an oral history now being created to mark the institution's existence, and will be present Monday when the state issues its apology for its involuntary sterilization program.

"Ruth's a real leader," said Bill Lynch, planning and communications coordinator for the Oregon Council of Developmental Disabilities. "She's worked on a lot of boards and commissions, both at the local and state level. She works hard as a self-advocate, and for others."

Walking with Cooper on Wednesday, Morris visited the vast dormitory room she shared with dozens of other women, a barracks-like place devoid of both decoration and sentiment, and recalled some of her experiences there.

"I remember one (matron) who would come in the morning, and you could hear her keys rattling on both sides of her," Morris said. "If you weren't up when she came in, she would tip the bed up and dump you out."

When residents went from their "cottages" to another building for dinner or recreation, "We were treated like little kids," she said. "We had to walk in lines and hold hands all the way."

In the last years of the institution's operation, someone of Morris' abilities "would never have been put in Fairview," Cooper said. "She lived here at a time when it was not a nice place. Many people lived here who never should have been sent here - they were just put here by someone."

A mother's uncertainty

Clearly, Morris' parents had misgivings about turning their daughter over to a state institution. Even after her mother initiated discussions with the training center, she apparently doubted the wisdom of putting her daughter there.

"Mrs. Morris telephoned this morning to ask about the procedure for requesting a postponement of admission," reads an entry by Fairview counselor Ruth Currie.

"She went over some of the information we already had, such as that Ruth is doing well in special class and that she seems to be thriving with the added responsibility of keeping house while her mother is away teaching."

As long as Morris' needs for education and vocational training could be met sufficiently at home, she should remain with her family, everyone agreed.

A few months later, the mother and daughter visited Fairview again, where the mother reiterated her misgivings about the placement in general, and sterilization in particular.

"Mother inquired about sterilization and seemed relieved that there is some flexibility about this," Currie wrote. "It had been her impression that no one could leave the institution without this."

In fact, that's exactly what happened. After her mother's death, when she made additional visits to Fairview with her father, Currie's notes outlined the changes Morris could expect if she were to become a Fairview resident.

"I discussed with her frankly some of our assets and liabilities, particularly the latter because of the relative freedom she has experienced in her own home," she wrote.

"(Morris) seemed to understand some of the limitations that we would have here in terms of congregate living, schedules, etc., and felt that this could be handled by her. We went on a tour of Magruder Cottage and she seemed to be very satisfied and very interested in what she saw there."

Finally, a way out of Fairview

A note in her file indicates that early in 1966, seven months after Morris became a Fairview inmate, doctors implanted an intrauterine contraceptive device. Five months later, one of them wrote comments about her progress.

"This girl at the present time is in full time grounds placement, working in the physical therapy program," he said. "The staff feels that this girl should have a short term at Fairview. ... It is felt that a position in the community should be obtained for her, perhaps in a nursing home."

A year later, the Board of Eugenics recommended sterilization for Morris, who underwent Fallopian resection six weeks later.

"They said I wouldn't get out of Fairview unless I had it done," Morris said. "My dad came, and he said, 'OK, let's go talk to the board,' and he signed the papers. I didn't have any choice - I wanted to get out (of Fairview), and that was the only way. I wanted kids, but I couldn't complain to anybody."

That's why Cooper supports what Kitzhaber will do Monday, in the presence of people such as Morris.

"I've always had a hard time thinking that people should apologize for something they had no part in," Cooper said. "But in this case, I think it's good to have this apology. There are a lot of people still alive today who wanted to have children and were prevented."

Kitzhaber aide Mark Gibson said the governor's quick agreement to issue an apology reflects his sympathy for the wrong done to people such as Morris.

"The governor wants to make clear that what happened was not the way a state should conduct itself," Gibson said. "We need to use this part of our history as a springboard to make sure nothing like this happens in the future."


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