Number of Victims

2,341 sterilizations are recorded to have occurred in the state of Oregon from 1921 until 1983 (Lombardo, p. 293). However, in governor John Kitzhaber's 2002 “Human Rights Day” apology on behalf of the state, it is noted that 2,648 people were sterilized (Josefson, p. 1). Of the 2,648 people accounted for, 1,713 (65%) were women and 935 (35%) were men. Victims, drawn mainly from state institutions like mental hospitals, facilities housing developmentally disabled persons, and prisons, were deemed mentally ill (about one third) or deficient, or in earlier time periods, “feeble-minded” (almost 60%). 


Period During Which Sterilizations Occurred

The first Oregon Eugenics law was signed into law in 1917 and was utilized within the year (Eccleston, p. 2). No sterilizations were reported in 1922 because the 1917 law was nullified by the Marion County Circuit Court and the 1923 law had not yet been passed (Largent, p. 200). The rate of sterilizations was greatest during the 1920s and 1930s, yet substantial number of sterilizations did occur after the end of World War II (Paul, p. 460). The Oregon eugenics program continued to sterilize patients until the 1960s and the law continued to be used sparing after the 1960s until its repeal in 1983. Two hundred and seventeen patients were sterilized after 1967 (Largent, p. 206).


Temporal Pattern and Rate of Sterilizations

Graph of Sterilizations in Oregon

Sterilizations in Oregon did not have a standard “peak” time period per se, but rather extended over a long stretch of time during which the number of sterilizations was fairly constant. The highest rate of sterilization reached about 8 residents sterilized per year per 100,000 over the period of the late 1920s to the mid-1940s.


Passage of Law

Bethenia Owens-Adair, the public leader of Oregon's eugenics law (see below), authored and promoted a sterilization law in 1907 (Largent, p.195). She continued to introduce it every year until it was finally passed and was signed into law in 1917 (Currey, pp. 47-50). The first law was passed in 1909 to “to prevent the procreation of confirmed criminals, insane persons, idiots, imbeciles and rapists,” by large margins in the Oregon Legislature (Largent, p. 192), but was vetoed by Governor Chamberlain as being overly complicated and not including enough safeguards for those convicted under it (Paul, p. 456). The Governor sent a personal letter to Owens-Adair explaining why he could not support the bill (Largent, p. 195).


In 1913, with the newly elected Governor West, the Oregon Legislature passed another eugenics bill that was signed into law (Paul, p. 456). Opponents, led by Lora Little and the Anti-Sterilization League, campaigned against the bill and forced a state referendum which went to voters on November 4, 1913 (Largent, p. 198). The advocacy of the Portland-based Anti-Sterilization League was largely credited with ensuring the law was subjected to a referendum, and contributing to its defeat (Paul, p. 456). Member of that group argued that the law was overly broad and that supporters had not sufficiently proven that sterilization was an effective or necessary reform technique, pointing to the success of former prison-colony nation Australia (Largent, p. 193). Voters rejected the new law 53,319 to 41,767 (Largent, p. 199).


The lobbying effort for eugenics regrouped and continued vigorously (Owens-Adair, p. 71), and another law was passed and signed by Governor Withycombe in 1917 that created Oregon's Eugenics Board (Eccleston, p. 2). The law provided for the sterilization of all “feebleminded residents of state prisons and hospitals.” Public scrutiny was decidedly more muted as proponents tried to reframe the purpose of the law to voters mostly distracted by World War I (Largent, p. 194). The law was amended in 1919 to include an appeals process for patients and their families, and was codified into Oregon statute in 1920. In 1921, the Marion Circuit Court struck down, in Cline v. Oregon State Board of Eugenics, as unconstitutional Oregon's law as violating the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The case was brought by Jacob Cline, a rural farmer convicted of incestual child molestation, who according to law was examined at his state prison and found to have feeblemindedness and a sexual perversion. His lawsuit effectively ended eugenics in Oregon for a time (Largent, pp. 194-195). At that time, 127 patients had already been sterilized (Laughlin, pp. 147, 318).


A new law was passed and signed in 1923, bringing eugenics back to Oregon. Supporters stressed the new law as being non-punitive and therapeutic for both the patient and society, and it survived challenges even though the substantive language of the new law was almost entirely the same. 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” (Cruz). Owens-Adair pushed for the inclusion of provisions in the new law to target especially sexual offenses (Paul, p. 457). For the first time it was expanded to include all residents, regardless of institutionalized status. Similar efforts led the push for marriage limits on “deviants” (Laughlin, p. 343). In 1925 the Oregon Legislature passed an amendment to the eugenics law to include all those convicted of rape and sodomy to the statute (Landman, p. 77). Oregon’s laws were further legitimized with the 1927 United States Supreme Court decision, in Buck v. Bell, that upheld the federal constitutionality of eugenics (Largent, p. 195). 


After slowly decreasing in speed, scope and scale since the 1950s, the Eugenics Board was renamed and reformed in 1967, and loosely disbanded in 1975 (Currey, p. 134). The Oregon Legislature repealed the 1923 law establishing legal eugenics in 1983. The debate over the Governor’s aforementioned 2002 apology “has uncovered decades of lost records and unknown cases,” including at “least one woman died as a result of a forced hysterectomy” (Cruz).


Groups Identified in the Law

The earliest Oregon sterilization bill applied to all feeble-minded people “…to prevent the procreation of confirmed criminals, insane persons, idiots, imbeciles and rapists” (Largent, p. 192). 


The 1917 law used to sterilize people singled out, “…those feeble-minded, insane, epileptic, habitual criminals, moral degenerates and sexual perverts” (Laughlin, p. 146). It was worded broadly enough to encompass a large swath of society deemed unfit for procreation. The “mentally deficient” often had sterilization as a precondition for leaving the state’s institutions (Paul, pp. 458-459). “Rapists, and other insane people,” were included in a vaguely worded section, which was able to encompass a variety of sexual deviants that often fell victim to the scorn of the State Eugenics Board. Homosexual men were often the main targets of this discrimination (Boag, p. 210).


Process of the Law

The process of the law required had state hospitals and prisons to review inmates and make recommendations to the State Eugenics Board for possible sterilizations. The Board itself was comprised of the directors of the four main institutions, the members of the State Board of Health and the Secretary of the State Board of Health. The Board would then review and make decisions on the validity of the inmate’s feeblemindedness. Members of the Board served without compensation (Laughlin, p. 88) and an order of sterilization required a majority vote (Landman, p. 76).

Two years after the initial 1917 law, a patient appeals process was implemented so an inmate could appeal his or her sterilization order to the local county court within fifteen days (Largent, pp. 194-195). Aforementioned changes to the law later allowed for non-incarcerated or institutionalized people to be drawn into the process, thusly expanding its scope. Although all laws enacted throughout the early twentieth century were compulsory, it was considered the policy of the Eugenics Board to have the consent of the patient and/or his guardians as to not provoke a popular or legal backlash. Even though a lack of appeal to a local court was often seen as a sign of consent, if objection was raised anytime during the process, it was usually halted. This being said, it was often easy to obtain consent from families supportive of eugenics policy, or patients wishing to be released back into the general population (Paul, p. 458).


Precipitating Factors and Processes

The passage of a comprehensive eugenical sterilization law in Oregon traces its history back to Oregon's admittance to the Union. Leaders of  "progressive movements” in Western states were main forces behind movements such as prohibition, suffrage, and social reform (Currey, pp. 86-89). Eugenical sterilization created what scholar David Noble called “a paradox of progressive thought” (quoted in Largent, p. 188), referring to the inherent contradiction between social reform and the damage caused by eugenics in America. Its development in Oregon followed a national backlash against what was perceived to be a widespread moral and racial decline. Immigration from southern and eastern Europe and the procreation of the “feebleminded” pushed a majority of states to approve sterilization laws in the first half of the twentieth Century. Prominent supporters of eugenics, like Harry Laughlin, were also big supporters of other laws to homogenize the United States racially, like the Immigration Act of 1924 (Largent, p. 189).

Ideas about eugenics and the genetically unfit may have also been passed to Oregon from the "Eugenics in New Germany" exhibit which was shown both in Salem and Portland. The exhibit from Germany displayed population trends in Germany, explained mendelian laws of heredity, and showed how sterilization could be used to reduce "the transmission of physical, mental, and behavioral defects" (Schneider, p. 71). In Salem the exhibit was set up at the city's YMCA and it received positive reviews from local newspapers (Schneider, p. 74). Promoters of the exhibit have said it was shown to seven to eight thousand residents in Salem and another forty thousand residents in Portland, meaning roughly one in twenty Oregonians saw the exhibit in 1935 (Schneider, p. 74). More significantly, Currel and Cogdell suggest that “there is considerable circumstantial evidence that, just as Laughlin's use of eugenics exhibits influenced passage of the 1924 National Origins Act, the Nazi eugenics exhibit powerfully motivated the legislature's expansion of the use of coerced sterilization in Oregon”(p. 376).


Groups Targeted and Victimized

Oregon’s laws targeted three main groups: 


The first group, the mental and physcially disabled, were generally clumped under the title of "insane" (Largent, p. 203). They were individuals that were considered to the lack intelligence or means to rear children in a modern society. Such people were deemed simple or feebleminded and drawn mainly from state hospitals and small towns. Many of these individuals were housed in the Oregon State Hospital in Salem or the Eastern Oregon State Hospital in Pendleton (Largent, p. 203).


The second group, "habitual criminals", were people convicted of three or more felonies, drawn mainly from state prisons (Largent, p. 203). Sometimes habitual sexual offenders used sterilization as an avenue to again gain parole (Largent, p. 205). They were seen as too risky for society in that they would undoubtedly raise families of ill and criminal regard. Prisoners were subjected to castration because of their  sexual behavior inside prison; in order to solve the problem of sodomy within prisons men were recommended for surgery (Largent, p. 205).


The third and final group, were “sexual perverts and moral degenerates,” and came from both state prisons and hospitals (Largent, p. 195). The real distinguishing feature of Oregon's sterilization compared to other states was its especially virulent targeting of "sexual deviants." Although this included women at the margins of society, rapists and child molesters (Boag, p. 208), homosexual men were prosecuted and persecuted at higher rates (Owens-Adair, pp. 110, 183). Homosexual political and cultural scandals in Portland incited widespread outrage to homosexuality (Largent, p. 195), and as seen as a mental illness in the United States until the 1960s, was included under the charge of eugenics proponents. This led to a greater use of castration in Oregon as opposed to vasectomy, which is a much less invasive surgery, rather than just wanting to prevent the spread of unfavorable traits "authorities wanted to unsex them" (Largent, p. 205).


Other Restrictions Placed on Disabled People

In Oregon, like other states with eugenics laws, sterilization was often a precondition of being released from prison or from a state mental institution (Paul, p. 458). It was often individuals at the margins of society who were targeted as feeble-minded or perverseand they often had little choice but to consented to sterilization in order to regain their freedom. Even after release there was certainly a stigma associated with having been targeted by the Oregon Eugenics Board, based on the public characterizations made by eugenics proponents like Bethenia Owens-Adair. This stigma was often intense because the individuals targeted, such as homosexuals or the mentally ill, would have naturally already been at the far periphery of societal approval.


Major Proponents

Picture of Dr_Bethenia_Owens-Adair (Photo origin: Oregon Historical Society; available at http://www.ohs.org/education/focus/breaking-tradition.cfm)

The eugenics movement's most salient supporter and contributor was Bethenia Owens-Adair. Owens-Adair was Oregon's first female physician and a famous campaigner for women's equality and temperance. Over her lifetime she published several books on eugenics, social ills, and research which were widely received. As Oregon was a relatively small state at the time, her presence in the political scene dominated discussions on eugenics' merits. She controlled a vigorous and controversial personality that sought to bring women out as America's savior reformers (Currey, pp. 47-86). She is largely given credit for enacting Oregon’s law and campaigned for eugenics measures nationwide until her death in 1926.  In a 1904 letter to the Oregonian newspaper she famously opened, “the greatest curse of the race comes through our vicious criminal and insane classes…These inferior and dangerous citizens should be dealt with not by chloroform or strangulation, but by the science of surgery” (quoted in Largent, p. 191).


“Feeder institutions” and institutions where sterilizations were performed

Picture of the Oregon State Institute for the Feeble-Minded (Photo origin: Wikipedia.com; available at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Oregon_State_Hospital_1920.jpg)

The Oregon State Hospital (formerly the Oregon State Hospital for the Insane) was a primary institution for sterilization; it  is located in Salem (Brockley, p. 24). The Oregon State Hospital is open to this day and serves as the state’s primary mental health facility (Wikipedia "Oregon State Hospital"). There is no mention on the Hospital’s website of its eugenical past (Oregon.gov "Oregon State Hospital").

History of the Oregon State Hospital

In 1862 the Governor Addison Gibbs recommended the funding of an asylum in Salem to treat "insane and idiotic persons". Finally in 1880 funds were allocated for the Oregon State Insane Asylum and groundbreaking occurred in 1881. By 1883 the Oregon State Insane Asylum was complete and operation began (Salem Online History "Oregon State Hospital") . The First Superintendant of the facility was a local physician, Dr. Horace Carpenter who had advocated the establishment of a state asylum for many years (Larsell, p. 311). Many of the first patients were transferred from the Portland State Hospital after the death of Superintendent, Dr J. C. Hawthorne (Larsell, p. 311). The number of the insane housed in the Oregon State Insane Asylum increased with the increasing population of Oregon, and at various times the hospital accepted citizens of other states including Alaska and Idaho (Larsell, p. 311-312). Additions were made to the facility in attempt to keep up with the growing number of patients but conditions were never ideal. Interestingly, in 1901 discussion over the patient's ability to afford their care arose to which the readers of the Oregonian appeared to accept the notion that the institution was not primarily a charitable organization but it's duty was the "protection of lives and property from the violence of those who become mentally unbalanced, and protection of the patient from himself" (Larsell, p. 314). Even this decision echoes of eugenics, and the protection of society from the deviant.

In 1907 the name of the hospital was changed from the Oregon State Insane Asylum to the Oregon State Hospital to emphasize its curative function. To cover the costs of maintaining the hospital patients were forced to work twelve-hour days despite an eight hour work day law (Larsell, p. 315). The led to a dramatic arrest of the Superintendant but the charged were dropped and the patients continued to endure long work hours (Larsell, p. 315).

By 1918 the Oregon State Hospital was performing sterilizations of undesirables including the "insane", the "habitual criminal", the "moral pevert" and the "sexually deviant" (Largent, p. 203). Largent claims, "Women made up 59 percent of the 509 sterilizations recorded at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem between 1918 and 1941. Over 90 percent of them received salpingectomies; the rest were given ovariectomies. Of the 207 men sterilized, just over 68 percent were castrated, while the rest received vasectomies (p. 203).
(A chart included on page 204 details the number of each operation in each year from 1918 to 1941). The peak year of sterilization was 1937 with 44 sterilizations performed in total. While vasectomies were common in other states at this time the majority of men sterilized at the Oregon State Hospital received castrations (Largent, p. 205). Sterilization in Oregon was also aimed at ridding the state of homosexuals along with other stigmatized groups (Largent, p. 205). Oregon officially ended state sponsored Sterilization 1983 with the abolishment of the Board of Protection (Largent, p. 206). In total around 2,500 individuals were sterilized in Oregon (Largent, p. 206).

Currently the hospital is known for its poor conditions and a tragic poisoning incident, which killed 47 in 1942. Also the hospital was featured in the movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest".

 Picture of a cottage at the Fairview Hospital and Training Center (Photo origin: Oregon State Archives; available at  http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us/state/control/pics/fairviewext.htm)

The Oregon State Institute for the Feeble-Minded, in Salem, was the largest center of eugenics (Brockley, p. 24), and closed in 2000 (Cruz). The Oregon State Institute for the Feeble-Minded was later renamed the Fairview Training Center. Fairview was established by the legislature in 1907 and the institution was created as a "quasi-educational institution" charged with educating the "feeble-minded" and caring for the "idiotic and epileptic" (Oregon Blue Book "Fairview Training Center").

History of the Oregon State Institute for the Feeble-minded

 The Oregon State Institute for the feeble-minded opened on December 1, 1908 with just 39 patients transfered from the Oregon State Hospital (Salem Online History "Fairview Training Center"). The institution was created to house those that were not considered insane but was intended to be more of a correctional facility for children with intellectual deficits, which was clarified in a commitment law passed in 1917 (Oregon Blue Book "Fairview Training Center"). The Board of Control established in 1913 to oversee the state facilities placed an emphasis on preparing students for "practical work" (Oregon Blue Book "Fairview Training Center"). Residents of the facility were housed in cottages of twenty to twenty-five based on their relative intelligence (Salem Online History "Fairview Training Center"). Students were also used as a labor source to provide food for the residents through farming, seeing as the Institution was given a plot of roughly seven hundred acres (Oregon Blue Book "Fairview Training Center"). Ecapes of residents have been documented although the students were rarely gone for more than a few hours (Salem Online History "Fairview Training Center").

In 1923 the Eugenics Board was established and sterilization became legal if consent was received from the individual or a court order mandated surgery (Oregon Blue Book "Fairview Training Center"). Between 1923 and 1929 three hundred patients at the Oregon State Institute for the feeble-minded were sterilized (Oregon Blue Book "Fairview Training Center"). Criteria for parole was established in 1931and took two forms, home or industrial parole, and required the following criteria :" a surety bond filed by the resident's guardian/overseer; the guardian's net worth must be at least $1000; the guardian must have been a resident of Oregon for six months; the parolee must have been sterilized; home or workplace for the parolee must have been inspected" (Oregon Blue Book "Fairview Training Center"). Although sterilization is listed as a requirement, it was much preferred but not essential for parole. Two thirds of those that were paroled were sterilized beforehand (Oregon Blue Book "Fairview Training Center"). In 1935 the name was changed to Oregon Fairview Home (Salem Online History "Fairview Training Center").

The mission of the institution changed drastically following World War II, a report in 1953 states "We [Fairview] are no longer used as a school for those who have only educational difficulty, as this is being taken care of in the public school system" (Oregon Blue Book "Fairview Training Center"). The Institution began to focus more on providing care to those considered mentally ill rather than rehabilitating children with learning problems. In 1954 the Fairview Home began providing out-patient mental health services (Oregon Blue Book "Fairview Training Center"). It was renamed Fairview Hospital and Training Center in 1965 which was shortened to Fairview Training Center in 1979 (Oregon Blue Book "Fairview Training Center"). The facility has been closed since 2000 (Wikipedia "Fairview Training Center").

The Fairview Training Center was known for its less than satisfactory treatment of both staff and patients. One resident recalls a time in which “workers stuck [him] in a laundry bag and hung the bag from a pipe” (Flickr "Fairview Training Center").  This occurred in the later 1940’s when the patient was in his 20’s.  Another patient explained that if a patient “soiled their pants” they were to “endure cold baths” and if a patient misbehaved they were put into baths with scolding hot water that often burned their skin.  Many patients were often spanked with shoes, whips and razor straps to teach them discipline (Flickr "Fairview Training Center"). Food poisoning, escapes, violence and fires were all part of the institutions past. The institution was highly insufficient for its patients and workers.  In 1946 the staff to patient ratio was 1 to 85 and throughout the 1960’s the institution was still highly understaffed (Flickr "Fairview Training Center"). In 1963 President John F. Kennedy began to advocate for a system that would properly care for individuals with disabilities (Flickr "Fairview Training Center").

Picture of the Oregon State Penitentiary (Photo origin: Wikipedia.com; available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Oregon_State_Pen.JPG) 

 The Oregon State Penitentiary, also in Salem, was also a center of eugenics and is open to this day (Brockley, p. 24). No mention of the prison’s eugenic past is present on the website of the Oregon Department of Corrections.

History of the Oregon State Penitentiary
The Oregon State Penitentiary was originally opened in Oregon City in 1842 but was moved to a 26-acre site in Salem in 1866 (Oregon.gov "Oregon State Penitentiary"). Walls of the maximum security section are 25 ft tall (Wikipedia "Oregon State Penitentiary").

The free standing minimum security prison on the grounds was originially built as the Oregon Womens Correctional Center (Oregon.gov). Inmates of the minimum security prison provide a large array of jobs around the facility which decreases the need to hire outside help (Oregon.gov "Oregon State Penitentiary").

Both the maximum security main penitentiary and the minimum security prison are still functioning (Oregon.gov "Oregon State Penitentiary").


Picture of the Eastern Oregon State Hospital (Photo origin: Oregon State Archives; available at http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us/state/control/pics/eoshext.htm)

The Eastern Oregon State Hospital, in Pendleton, also performed sterilizations (Laughlin, pp. 88-89).

History of the Eastern Oregon State Hospital

The Eastern Oregon State Hospital opened in January 1913 after being created by a 1909 statute (Oregon Blue Book "Eastern Oregon State Hospital"). The missions of the facilities were primary to "diagnose mental illness, provide treatment, and release patients who had satisfactorily responded to treatment" (Oregon Blue Book). The facility, however, also was responsible for other services and had "to investigate patients admitted and their family histories to determine the cause of a person's mental illness" (Oregon Blue Book "Eastern Oregon State Hospital"). The facility also undertook the care of those that could not be released back into society.

Patients of the insitution were provided with social and recreational programs but were also expected to provide labor for the maintenance of the buildings and grounds in order to minimize the cost they exacted to society (Oregon Blue Book "Eastern Oregon State Hospital").

In 1965 the name was changed to the Eastern Oregon Hospital and Training Center to emphasize the desire to return patients to society after their rehabilitation. A three hundred and fifty bed medium security prison opened in 1985 under the title, Eastern Oregon  Correctional Institution (Oregon Blue Book "Eastern Oregon State Hospital"). On January 1, 1985 the Eastern Oregon Hospital and Training Center became two separate facilities, the Eastern Oregon Psychiatric Center and the Eastern Oregon Training Center (Oregon Blue Book "Eastern Oregon State Hospital"). 

In 2007 the Eastern Oregon Psychiatric Center was renamed Blue Mountain Recovey Center and in 2009 the Eastern Oregon Training Center was closed (Oregon.gov).


The happenings of these institutions, including a particular fondness for castration and salpingectomy over other less radical forms of sterilization (Laughlin, p. 88), are almost completely ignored only 25 years after the last law‘s repeal. Oregon’s eugenics program affected people from largely from the state’s institutions, institutions whose directors served on the State Eugenics Board. The progam extended to non-institutionalized people, who were the targets of social workers and community complaints.  The existences of "vice commissions" in larger cities were also responsible rounding up the periphery of society for the state's actions (Boag, pp. 10-11). Oregon was infamous for targeting largely targeted troubled or simply “misbehaving” youth and homosexual men (Cruz).


Oregon also had a lively opposition movement that opposed the actions of the Eugenics Board and Owens-Adair. Portland had the nation's only "Anti-Sterilization League" (Laughlin, pp. 42-45) that opposed eugenics on grounds that it was biased, lacked scientific backing, and was inappropriately harsh and malicious in its doings. The voters, the legislature, a governor and the court system all at least one time rejected a eugenics law. Oregon’s initiative votes on eugenics could be the first and only eugenics referendum ever. 

Lora Little, whose opposition to eugenics was influenced by her general opposition to the medical profession, chaired the Oregon Anti-Sterilization League. Her crusade had begun with the death of her son, whom she believed died from complications from the smallpox vaccination. Little found the medical profession a career based purely for-profit and full of radical and unsubstantiated claims of progress (Largent, p. 188). 

The shift towards acceptance of eugenics was a refocusing in a frame of a therapy that helped people, and not a sentence for deviance. Oregon’s support of progressive ideas that embraced science in public policy made it hard to overcome the law’s widespread support. Protestant women’s groups led by Owens-Adair held much sway in the largely developing state, and traditional voices of opposition like conservatives and Catholics were underrepresented.


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