State will admit sterilization past

Portland Oregonian

Gov. John Kitzhaber plans to acknowledge that the state forcibly sterilized hundreds of vulnerable Oregonians over more than 60 years.

The governor today scheduled a Dec. 2 special ceremony at which advocates say he will apologize on behalf of the state. An apology would make Kitzhaber the second governor, behind Virginia's, to atone for a state's eugenics laws. Victims and a coalition of 17 social and professional organizations have sought the action since July. The acknowledgment also formally exposes a little-known chapter of Oregon history. More than 2,600 residents were sterilized between 1917 and 1981, most of them in state care. Among them were children who were living in state institutions because they were unwanted, people who had epilepsy and wayward teenage girls.

Survivors and advocates from organizations representing gays and people with disabilities and mental illness greeted the news Thursday with jubilation. They wanted the state to acknowledge what happened to victims, set the historic record straight and affirm the rights of all Oregonians. "It knocked me backward. I just didn't know if he was going to do it," said Kenneth Newman, who was sterilized at Fairview Hospital and Training Center at age 15, as was his wife, Shirley. "It's great news, and let's hope things like this never happen again," said Velma Hayes, who was also sterilized at age 15. The Portland residents and other survivors have been invited to the Capitol for the event.

Kitzhaber's staff declined to describe the governor's planned remarks, but spokesman Tom Towslee said, "He recognizes what was done here was inappropriate."

The debate over an apology has already uncovered decades of lost records and unknown cases. The Oregon Youth Authority discovered at least 100 teenage girls were forcibly sterilized while they lived at the state training school for delinquent girls before 1941.

Director Karen Brazeau began searching for the cases after the previous authority director read accounts of the sterilizations in The Oregonian this summer and remembered seeing references to the procedures in old files. The girls sterilized ranged from delinquents to runaways to those who had simply misbehaved or were considered wayward, Brazeau said. No boys appeared to have been sterilized in the juvenile system. "This seemed to be a practice reserved for the young women," Brazeau said. "I think it's very important to know it and have it out in the light. I'm sure there are women alive today who experienced this."

Oregon was one of 33 states to pass sterilization laws in the first quarter of the 20th century. The laws were based on eugenics, the pseudo-scientific movement that sought to solve social problems by preventing the "unfit" from having children. Nazi Germany eventually would use eugenics laws in the United States to legally justify its own programs that would sterilize and eventually kill millions.But Oregon was remarkable in that its laws were initially used to punish people having homosexual sex; that the state for years favored castration over vasectomies, and that the Legislature did not abolish the Board of Eugenics until October, 1983. Until reforms in 1967, sterilization often was used as a condition of release from state institutions or to punish people who acted out. But evidence of what occurred was scanty. Medical records detailing the surgeries are confidential. And the records of the Board of Eugenics, the small state board that ordered the procedures, and its successor, the Board of Social Protection, were lost or destroyed.

Between January 1987 and June 1988, a nonprofit contractor in Portland shredded hundreds of detailed documents of the board's work at the request of the state, according to employees at the Portland Habilitation Center, which shreds documents for the state. Then late this summer, workers at the state archives discovered seven boxes of microfilm marked "Board of Eugenics." The film was so fragile it had to be copied and only became available for review earlier this month. On Wednesday, a state employee completed that review and said that two of the reels did contain minutes of Board of Eugenics quarterly meetings up to 1960. Still missing are the last 20 years of meeting minutes. But copies of 1921 meetings made available to The Oregonian under privacy laws show that six board members met quarterly and ordered castrations and ovaries removed for people for whom "procreation would produce children with an inherited tendency to feeble-mindedness, insanity, epilepsy, criminality or degeneracy."

In 2001, the Virginia General Assembly apologized for that state's eugenics law, and Gov. Mark Warner in May erected a memorial to the first woman sterilized under eugenics. "I offer the Commonwealth's sincere apology for Virginia's participation in eugenics," Warner said, calling it "a shameful effort in which state government never should have been involved."

In Oregon, Kitzhaber's action will come in the closing days of his administration. As a legislator, Kitzhaber, who is a physician, served on the joint committee that helped repeal the 1917 law.

The governor plans to use the Dec. 2 event to proclaim Dec. 10 as Human Rights Day in Oregon and to celebrate the progress the state has made in the treatment of people with mental health disorders, developmental disabilities and those with criminal backgrounds. Some victims want compensation not only for the sterilizations, but also for their other treatment in state institutions. But most advocates and victims have only pushed for acknowledgment of what happened.

"I'm very grateful to the governor for doing this," said organizer Steve Weiss, who hopes to inspire advocates in California to pursue an apology in that state as well.

On Thursday, caseworker Bill West of the ARC of Multnomah County called and visited people who were sterilized and told them about Kitzhaber's announcement. He stopped at the home of Ted and Iva McNeil, who were both sterilized as teenagers and have been married 34 years, to tell them about Kitzhaber's plan.  "He is doing the right thing," West said. "This is an issue of justice, straight out justice."

Julie Sullivan: 503-221-8068;