A welcome apology: Governor to acknowledge state sterilizations

A Register-Guard Editorial
November 18, 2002

It's always disturbing when governments - local, state or national - are reluctant to apologize for past mistakes. Too often, fears of financial liability or public backlash - or sometimes just a lack of political backbone - prevent public officials from acknowledging the errors of the past.
So it comes as refreshing and welcome news that Gov. John Kitzhaber has scheduled a special ceremony on Dec. 2 to apologize to hundreds of developmentally disabled Oregonians who were forcibly sterilized by the state over a period of six decades.

An acknowledgement that 2,650 of Oregon's most vulnerable citizens were sterilized under an insidious concept known as eugenics is long overdue. Those victims who are still living are entitled to an apology, and it's important, especially given last year's revelation that most of the program's records were destroyed, that Oregonians publicly acknowledge and repudiate this little known - and grotesque - chapter from its not-too-distant past.

Oregon was one of 33 states to pass sterilization laws in the early part of the 20th century. The laws were based on the then-intellectually respectable idea that the human population can be improved through selective breeding. The process was widely accepted until Adolf Hitler revealed to the world the horrific abuses that occur when a government carries the idea of preventing reproduction by "undesirables" to a genocidal extreme.

Oregon's law, adopted in 1917 and continued for decades after the idea had been scientifically repudiated, created a State Board of Eugenics. It's duties were described in chilling legalese:

"To examine into the innate traits, the mental and physical conditions, the personal records, and the family traits and histories, of all feeble-minded, insane, epileptic, habitual criminals, moral degenerates and sexual perverts reported to it who will probably become social menaces or wards of the state, and to direct the superintendent of the institution in which the inmate is confined to perform or cause to be performed such type of sterilization as may be deemed best by said board."

Until reforms in 1967, sterilization was regularly used by state officials as a condition of release from state institutions or to punish people who acted out. Oregon initially used the eugenics laws to punish homosexuals. Later, state officials tended toward castrations instead of vasectomies. It wasn't until 1983 that the board, then called the State Board of Social Protection, was abolished. Fittingly, it was Kitzhaber, then a state senator, who made the motion to bring the 66-year-old program to an end.

A coalition of 17 social and professional organizations joined with victims last year in seeking an official state apology. Now, Kitzhaber has signaled that Oregon will become the second state to issue an apology. Last year, the Virginia General Assembly apologized for that state's eugenics law - the nation's first - and Gov. Mark Warner in May dedicated a memorial to the first woman sterilized under the program.

``I offer the Commonwealth's sincere apology for Virginia's participation in eugenics,'' Warner said at the ceremony, calling it ``a shameful effort in which state government never should have been involved.''

Now, it's Oregon's turn to face its past and express its true and sorrowful regrets.