Oregon declares human rights day

The Dec. 2 event will acknowledge the victims of forced sterilization.

Statesman Journal
November 16, 2002

Gov. John Kitzhaber has scheduled a special ceremony next month to acknowledge the hundreds of Oregonians who were sterilized by the state, many in Salem, according to advocates of the victims. Such an acknowledgement by Kitzhaber will make him the second governor after Virginia’s to offer an official apology for the state’s former eugenics laws. A spokesman for Kitzhaber, however, stopped short of saying whether a formal apology will be offered. “What we’re doing is declaring a human rights day in Oregon on Dec. 2 to acknowledge the progress made in the treatment of the developmentally disabled,” said spokesman Tom Towslee. “In the course of declaring that day he’ll acknowledge past inappropriate acts ... in particular, forced sterilization,” Towslee said Friday.

Victims and a coalition of 17 social and professional organizations have sought a state apology since July.
They seek acknowledgment of a little-known chapter of Oregon history when more than 2,600 residents were sterilized between 1917 and 1981, most of whom were under 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 say an official apology would set the historical 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 victims have been invited to the Capitol for the Dec. 2 event.

Sterilizations were legally authorized at Fairview, a Salem institution with developmentally disabled residents, in the early 1920s. That’s when the Oregon Legislature formed a State Board of Eugenics and allowed the state to sterilize “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.”

Fairview, which opened in 1908 as the “State Institution for the Feeble Minded,” closed in February 2000. State officials moved residents into smaller group homes throughout the state.

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 said she began searching for the cases after the previous director read accounts of the sterilizations in The Oregonian last 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, based on eugenics, the pseudo-scientific movement to solve social problems by preventing the “unfit” from having children. Nazi Germany used the example of eugenics laws in the United States to legally justify Nazi programs that sterilized and killed millions of people. Oregon initially used its eugenics laws to punish homosexuals. The state also favored castration over vasectomies, and 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.

Evidence of the law’s effect has been difficult to obtain because medical records are confidential and the records of the Board of Eugenics, which ordered the procedures, and its successor, the Board of Social Protection, were lost or destroyed. But copies of meetings in 1921 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 its eugenics law, and Gov. Mark Warner in May set up 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.